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Groundworks halts shelter project

‘No plan B’ as agency continues searching for winter space

BRATTLEBORO—After months investigating the potential relocation of an emergency seasonal shelter and food shelf to a permanent home, Groundworks Collaborative announced Monday that it has abandoned plans for 39 Frost St.

“We made this decision without the comfort of a plan B,” Groundworks Executive Director Joshua Davis said.

He said money directed the decision to not purchase the 3,300-square foot property; the organization simply can’t afford to redevelop the property.

Groundworks must now find another site for the emergency shelter, called the Seasonal Overflow Shelter. Though it’s hard to imagine in the heat of July, by November, cold temperatures will necessitate the need for a winter shelter.

Davis said weighing the cost of the rehabilitation needed to make 39 Frost suitable as an emergency winter overflow shelter and food shelf against Groundworks’ long-term sustainability made surrendering plans for the site the right choice.

“It’s a disappointing decision,” Davis said. “But I feel like it’s the right choice for this organization.”

A question of financing

Last year, two long-standing nonprofits focused on homelessness — Morningside Shelter and the Brattleboro Area Drop-In Center — merged to form Groundworks Collaborative. After the merger, the new organization identified the need for a permanent home for the emergency shelter and expanded program space. The site at 39 Frost Street seemed like the solution.

Groundworks invested approximately $50,000 in an option fee and feasibility studies on the property that included environmental studies, flood mitigation plans, a fundraising assessment, and site plans, Davis said. Staff also assessed the organization’s capacity to tackle the project, he said.

Monies for the studies came from Groundworks, town, and state funds.

The option agreement to keep 39 Frost off the market while the organization completed its vetting process expired June 30, Davis said.

The property is listed for sale for $339,000.

According to Davis, it would cost more than $1 million to rehabilitate 39 Frost even with a planned phased-in approach.

“The project is more expensive than anticipated, while providing only for our short-term needs, and the timing is wrong to raise the amount of money needed to establish the Seasonal Overflow Shelter there for this coming November,” wrote Davis in an open letter to the community on July 11.

Even completing the work in stages would have come with a heavy price tag and left the organization “with a scaled-back project” that wouldn’t meet all of Groundworks’ needs, he said. The amount of staff time and energy required for the project would have taken people away from serving clients, Davis said.

Race against time

Davis feels the money invested in vetting 39 Frost wasn’t wasted. Groundworks had a responsibility to fully investigate the site and it did, he said.

“Ultimately, moving forward with the expansion project at this time would threaten the sustainability of Groundworks Collaborative,” he said.

Davis said recent concerns raised by some community members living in the Frost, Elliot, and Elm Triangle neighborhood didn’t sway the decision.

“It was definitely something we were paying attention to, but it was not the reason we decided to walk away from this project,” he said.

At a June 20 Development Review Board, some residents spoke against the shelter opening on Frost Street.

They stressed that they supported helping those who are homeless, but they felt a shelter didn’t suit a residential neighborhood. Concerns included traffic safety, public drunkenness, trespassing, and threats of violence. Speakers also raised multiple quality of life issues such as smoking, public urination, and noise pollution.

Calls to some community members about Groundworks’ Monday announcement weren’t answered by press time; others declined to comment.

Now, Groundworks faces a ticking clock.

The organization has until November to find an alternative site for the Seasonal Overflow Shelter.

For many years, the First Baptist Church on Main Street housed the shelter from approximately November to April. Due to a change in ownership, the church is no longer an option for the shelter.

If the organization could find a property to house the shelter for two winters, that would make Davis happy, but he’ll settle for solidifying something for one season.

Davis said he reached out to the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and the town of Brattleboro for help.

Community support

Both entities responded with support — staff time — and a list of alternative sites, he said. The partners have founded a Community Task Force to review the sites.

“Moving forward, the Seasonal Overflow Shelter is going to require additional support from the community, and we will communicate updates as they progress,” Davis said.

Approximately five sites are under review, he said.

Conversations with town staff and Town Manager Peter Elwell have given Davis hope.

Town staff realize that finding a winter shelter is a community issue, not solely a Groundworks problem, he said.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that,” Davis said.

Elwell confirmed the town’s commitment to help find a site.

Approximately five to six staff members are helping with the search and identifying properties that are or may be vacant during the winter months, Elwell said.

“As a community, we need to support Groundworks to shelter people in their most desperate time of need,” he said.

Solving Groundworks’ longer-term efforts to address homelessness may not be appropriate for the town to be involved with, Elwell added.

The town is not a provider of services in the same way as human service organizations provide services. But Elwell is comfortable helping Groundworks find a location for the winter shelter.

“Not effectively addressing this need puts people literally at risk of dying of exposure to the elements this winter and we can’t let that happen,” Elwell said.

Once a site is found, Groundworks and the property owner will work out an agreement for the shelter, Elwell added.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #365 (Wednesday, July 13, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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