BRATTLEBORO—In many ways, the town’s seasonal overflow shelter has been operating on borrowed time.
So administrators have decided to try something entirely new when cold weather arrives this fall.
The overnight shelter will move out of downtown and relocate to the new Winston Prouty campus for the 2017-18 season, officials announced on Aug. 14.
The program also is gaining a full-time staff and adding professional medical, substance-abuse, and mental-health services.
The move presents logistical challenges, some of which likely will come up at a public meeting planned for Aug. 16, at 6 p.m., at Winston Prouty.
But administrators say a change was necessary due to increasing demand and limited space at the current shelter.
“This is all coming to a head at the same time,” said Josh Davis, executive director of Groundworks Collaborative, which operates the shelter. “And I think a change in location prompts discussion about what this program looks like and what we want this program to be.”
Getting people in out of the cold
The seasonal overflow shelter provides a hot meal and a place to sleep during cold-weather months. There aren’t many requirements for getting in: Visitors must be homeless and be able to walk and care for themselves.
“At the heart of this program is to get people in out of the cold,” Davis said. “We want to reduce the barriers as much as possible. We want people to come inside and utilize this space.”
But in recent years, the shelter program has barely kept up with the community’s need.
The most pressing concern is that the shelter’s home for the past decade, First Baptist Church on Main Street, is under new ownership and is undergoing renovation that “will not allow for a shelter moving forward,” administrators said.
In 2015, administrators thought they’d found a new downtown home for the shelter on Frost Street.
Davis said that plan fell through mostly due to logistical and organizational challenges, rather than community opposition that sprung up after the project was announced.
‘Intensity of need’
Location issues aside, shelter administrators say it’s also become clear that the current business model is no longer adequate.
For instance, the shelter has been staffed by volunteers with support from Groundworks staff.
“We have a core group of volunteers who have been there from the start. And it’s just amazing how dedicated people are to this program,” Davis said. “But it reaches this point where the need exceeds the ability of the volunteers to be able to safely maintain the space.”
That’s in part because of the number of people using the shelter. Last winter, the shelter served 154 people over the course of the winter and exceeded its 20-bed capacity on 71 nights — about 43 percent of the season.
Administrators also are citing the “intensity of needs” of those using the space. That includes mental health and drug issues.
The shelter last winter had its first overdose, and a recap of the season notes that “substance abuse this year was a continuous problem that staff, clients, and volunteers were faced with.”
To make matters worse, there was less space available at the church last winter, resulting in a “very mixed population in a small space,” Davis said.
The new shelter plan aims to address many of those problems.
Former Austine School dorm
Groundworks is partnering with Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, which purchased the former Austine School campus in early 2016. Winston Prouty needs only a small part of that 177-acre campus, leaving much space for other projects and development.
Groundworks is renting a former Austine dorm, which will provide 33 beds. That’s a 65-percent increase in capacity from the church space.
Davis cited many other advantages.
“At the dorm, we’re going to be able to have separate space for counseling, have separate space for people to relax,” he said. “We’re going to have more than one bathroom facility. We’re going to have showers. We’re going to have the ability to wash linens on site.”
The shelter’s volunteers will be replaced by two paid staffers per shift. And there will be services available, including a nurse from Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, a mental health clinician from Brattleboro Retreat, and a clinician from Health Care & Rehabilitation Services.
Shelter clients are under no obligation to use such services, but Davis is hoping the programming will be a big benefit to those who want help. Groundworks can’t afford to hire its own health-care specialists, he noted.
Closing the budget gap
Money, however, is one of the logistical issues involved with moving the overflow shelter to Winston Prouty.
The program has been running on a shoestring, with a budget of about $40,000 last year. The new location’s budget has ballooned to nearly $200,000, and most of that will be tied up in staffing.
Though the shelter is scheduled to open Nov. 1, Groundworks still is about $60,000 short and is asking for the community’s help to meet that budget.
“These are the pieces that we need to close the gap,” Davis said. “There’s some urgency about it. We need to raise these dollars as quickly as possible.”
Pulling the shelter out of downtown also presented transportation issues, since the Winston Prouty campus won’t be close enough for many clients to walk.
The proposed solution is to pick up those clients each evening from the Drop-In Center on South Main Street and drive them to the new shelter location, then drive them back in the morning.
In fact, that will be the only way to get to the shelter: There will be no “direct check-in” allowed.
At this point, however, Groundworks hasn’t yet figured out who will provide such transportation. “That’s what we’re working on,” Davis said.
‘People take care of one another’
Safety also is an issue, though it’s a sensitive subject.
In an announcement of the new shelter location, Brattleboro police Chief Mike Fitzgerald pledged that his department will continue to provide frequent check-ins at the overflow shelter. But he noted that officers “responded to an average of just seven calls per month” at the downtown shelter last winter, a number the chief deemed “remarkable.”
Davis underscored that statistic. And he said shelter staff will be trained to resolve conflicts.
“Generally speaking, the shelter is a really safe place,” he said. “People take care of one another.”
There are some concessions to the new location: Shelter clients will arrive after Winston Prouty has closed and must leave before it opens in the morning.
That should “alleviate any concerns people might have about overlap of populations on campus,” said Chloe Learey, Winston Prouty’s executive director.
At the same time, Learey said she’s not concerned about having the overflow shelter on site. She noted that Winston Prouty and Groundworks have collaborated on other programs and that the two organizations “have a great working relationship.”
“If there’s a problem, I know that we will deal with it,” Learey said.