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Groundworks moves ahead with relocation of overflow shelter

Facility will open Nov. 13 at Winston Prouty campus

Administrators are pushing ahead with plans to relocate Brattleboro’s cold-weather homeless shelter, though it will begin operations a bit later than initially planned.

The town’s overflow shelter is scheduled to open Nov. 13 at the Winston Prouty campus, a few miles from the shelter’s former longtime home in the First Baptist Church on Main Street.

Organizers say the recent spate of relatively warm weather has given them a few extra weeks to hire staff and finalize details. And they’re pledging to be transparent about those details, while acknowledging that some people likely will remain opposed to the move.

“Our intent is to be accessible and to communicate,” said Josh Davis, executive director of Groundworks Collaborative, which operates the shelter.

The overflow shelter, which offers a nightly hot meal and a warm place to sleep, operated for a decade at First Baptist Church. But two factors — a change in the church’s ownership and increasing demands on shelter volunteers — forced a change.

In August, Davis and Chloe Learey, executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, announced plans to move the shelter to a dormitory at the former Austine School campus. Prouty purchased the 177-acre Austine property last year.

The move will give the shelter more beds — 33, compared with the 20 that had been available at the church. That’s important, since the shelter exceeded capacity on 71 nights last season.

Groundworks also is hiring full-time employees to run the shelter, which had been staffed by volunteers. And the shelter will add professional medical, substance-abuse, and mental-health services this season via new partnerships with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Brattleboro Retreat, and Health Care & Rehabilitation Services.

But there have been concerns about the shelter’s relocation to a campus that hosts school children. At a meeting held shortly after the shelter move was announced, some raised concerns about security and drug use by shelter clients.

Davis said he hasn’t heard much additional feedback since then. He acknowledged that some likely remain opposed to the shelter move, but he reiterated that Groundworks has no choice but to move ahead.

“We’re going to do everything we can to be responsible and accountable,” he said.

The move to the Prouty Center, which is supposed to be for only one season while officials seek a more permanent home, has forced Groundworks to take on new staff and new responsibilities.

“We’re interviewing like crazy, but we’re not fully staffed [for the shelter] yet,” Davis said.

Groundworks administrators are grateful for the “extended mild fall,” Davis said, to allow time to get all staff in place. The shelter had been slated to begin operations Nov. 1, but that opening date is always flexible depending on the weather.

“We’re not up and running and ready to go yet, but we will be by [Nov. 13],” he said.

Groundworks also had to devise a new transportation system due to Winston Prouty’s location and strict rules about when overflow shelter clients must arrive at and leave the campus.

The plan is to drive those clients from the Drop-In Center on South Main Street to Winston Prouty each evening, then drive them back to the center again in the early morning. There would be no interaction with the Prouty Center’s students.

Groundworks had been seeking a partner to provide that transportation, but “we just kept hitting dead ends,” Davis said. So the social service nonprofit now is finalizing plans to buy its own 12-passenger van.

“We’re expecting to have something in the next couple of weeks,” Davis said in an Oct. 20 interview.

It’s a big change not only for the shelter’s administrators and its neighbors, but also for those who use the service. “We’re doing our best to spread the word now about how things are going to run,” Davis said.

At Prouty, Learey said a volunteer effort via the United Way of Windham County helped get the former Austine dorm ready for this winter’s shelter.

In spite of the questions and concerns expressed last summer, Learey said she believes there’s a lot of support for the overflow shelter’s new location.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #431 (Wednesday, October 25, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.

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