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Kurt White, ambulatory services director at the Brattleboro Retreat, speaks about the relocation of Brattleboro’s seasonal overflow shelter.

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Critics question plan to move winter shelter

Groundworks addresses plans to relocate seasonal emergency shelter to Winston Prouty campus

BRATTLEBORO—Is a bucolic, 177-acre hillside campus a good place for a wintertime homeless shelter?

That was a recurring question at an Aug. 16 community meeting, as some residents balked at plans to move Brattleboro’s seasonal overflow shelter from its longtime downtown home to the Winston Prouty campus a few miles away.

The big concern is whether shelter administrators can maintain safety and security on a property that hosts several schools and other nonprofits.

“There’s no debate that this [shelter] is good work,” said Kimberley Diemond, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermont, a campus tenant. “The question is, why is it coming here?”

In response, shelter advocates detailed their plans to run a tight ship. They also portrayed the move as a short-term solution of last resort.

“We are in a crisis, essentially,” said Chloe Learey, Winston Prouty’s executive director. “We have no place else for our seasonal overflow shelter to go.”

The overflow shelter, administered by Brattleboro-based Groundworks Collaborative, is designed to get people inside on cold winter nights. Last season, the overnight shelter opened Nov. 1 and closed April 17.

Urgent need

There’s clear demand for the shelter: For 2016-17, a total of 154 people used the service, with 30 percent of those clients staying three months or more.

But the shelter is on the move because its decade-long home at First Baptist Church on Main Street has been sold and is undergoing renovation. Also, Groundworks administrators say the current shelter setup — a volunteer staff overseeing a large population in a single room — is no longer feasible given the clientele’s size and needs.

On Aug. 14, Learey and Groundworks Executive Director Josh Davis announced that the shelter will relocate for this winter only to the former Austine School campus. The property was purchased last year by the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development.

The new location in a campus dormitory will feature full-time, paid staffers and will expand shelter capacity from 20 to 33 beds. The dorm offers multiple bathrooms with showers; a laundry; a kitchen; and private space for counseling.

Groundworks also is partnering on the shelter project with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Brattleboro Retreat, and Health Care & Rehabilitation Services. Each of those organizations will have someone at the shelter to offer help to those who want it.

At the Aug. 16 community meeting held at Winston Prouty, representatives of those partnering organizations praised the new shelter plan.

“From my point of view, housing is a mental health issue and a mental health intervention,” said Kurt White, the Retreat’s ambulatory services director. “If you are homeless and don’t have access to basic needs and safe spaces, the chances of your being able to succeed in mental health and substance abuse treatment are much smaller than they would be otherwise.”

Partnering with police

Brattleboro Police also are considered partners in the venture. Chief Mike Fitzgerald told residents that his officers went to the downtown shelter an average of seven times a month, and he considers that “extraordinary” given the difficulties of shelter life.

“We go to certain residences in town more times than that in a three-day period,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald also said he likes Groundworks’ proposal to more tightly control shelter access at Winston Prouty: Administrators say they’ll allow no walk-up admission and will instead bus clients to the campus each evening from the Drop-In Center on South Main Street.

Each morning, shelter users will be driven back to the downtown. The transportation scheme means there will be no overlap between Winston Prouty operations and shelter operations.

Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell was among those praising such plans. “We’re really excited about the better environment that this represents,” Elwell said.

But some wonder whether shelter administrators will be able to deliver on their promises.

One woman who identified herself as a Winston Prouty parent said she found no comfort in Fitzgerald’s monthly response statistics.

“We have children on this campus. That’s seven times too many,” she said.

“Homelessness, to me, doesn’t just [last] from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. It’s a 24-7 problem, and we are going to see it here when I drop off my kid at school,” she said. “I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place.”

Others raised concerns about issues like campus security and drug use by shelter clients. Diemond urged shelter administrators to address “the reality of what happens” when a client can’t be controlled.

“This is not going to go smoothly, because nothing does,” she said. “So when problems happen, what is the recourse that the tenants have, and what are you going to do about it?”

Diemond also wasn’t happy with the timing of the shelter announcement.

“My first concern is that, as a tenant, we’re being told after this has been decided,” she said.

A learning experience

Shelter organizers said they disclosed the news as soon as they could, given that planning is still under way. And Groundworks leaders promised to be responsive to shelter problems around the clock.

“You will have access to somebody who will respond to you,” Davis said.

They acknowledged, however, that the new shelter model is untested and will be a learning experience.

“I am pretty hopeful that, when we get into a rhythm, it will work,” Learey said. “And when it doesn’t work, we can quickly fix something.”

Not everyone who spoke at the meeting had issues with the Winston Prouty plan. Jeanne Deyo, a Groundworks board member, said she has volunteered at the downtown shelter and has “never been fearful” there.

The new shelter, Deyo said, will be even better.

“I don’t think any place is ideal,” she said. “The bottom line for what we’re doing here is keeping people off the street in the winter. We are saving lives.”

Some also said critics were making unfair assumptions about shelter users.

“I think we have to be cautious. I hurt for you guys, because I can see the fear,” said Aimee Hoskins, a Brattleboro Memorial Hospital nurse who is stationed at Groundworks facilities. “But I also hurt for my clients that are being judged before they even walk in the door.”

As they left the meeting, Learey and Davis said they appreciated the public input and expect to follow up on concerns.

But they also re-emphasized that the Winston Prouty move is a one-season solution as Groundworks continues to seek a permanent home for the overflow shelter.

“Nobody thinks that this is a great place for it,” Learey said. “But it is the place we have right now in our community that could work for one season to buy the time to find a better location.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #422 (Wednesday, August 23, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.

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