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Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo

Joshua Davis, executive director of Groundworks Collaborative.

News / Column

Staff ‘finds its sea legs’ at new shelter site

Josh Davis: ‘We want to do everything we can to reduce barriers for folks to get the supports that they need’

This interview is adapted from the Feb. 7 broadcast of Green Mountain Mornings on WKVT-AM and is published with the station’s permission. Host Olga Peters was for many years the senior reporter at The Commons. The show airs daily from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. To hear audio of the show on demand, visit the show’s Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/wkvtradio.

BRATTLEBORO—Josh Davis, executive director of Groundworks Collaborative, recently joined me for a radio interview to discuss the programs and services that the agency provides.

The Groundworks Seasonal Overflow Shelter opened in November in its new quarters on the Winston Prouty campus, with a number of changes in staffing and routines. For years, the shelter operated in downtown Brattleboro in the First Baptist Church.

The new site is not as centrally located, so Groundworks is running a shuttle bus daily for people in need of overnight shelter and requiring them to sign up to reserve a spot.

Davis also gave us an update on the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust’s transformation of the former Lamplighter Inn into Great River Terrace, which will be designed to provide one-room efficiency apartments for people in need. Groundworks and HCRS will have staff on site to help residents successfully navigate a journey from homelessness.

For more information on these programs, visit groundworksvt.org.

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Olga Peters: Tell me, how is the seasonal shelter?

Josh Davis: Overall, the program is going really well. We couldn’t be more pleased with our partnership with Winston Prouty. They’ve been amazing landlords.

We now have a program set up in a space that’s really designed for people to sleep in. The dormitory has made a huge shift in terms of managing the operation.

We’re almost halfway through the season. We’ve smoothed out some of the kinks of new space, with new staff coming on. Our staff members are finding their sea legs.

O.P.: You know where all the light switches are. Or what happens when the fuse blows.

J.D.: That’s right. Those kinds of things, and also building rapport and relationships with the folks who are staying at the shelter. That’s great to see. And kudos to our staff for doing a great job.

So far this season, we served 97 clients, which is quite a large number. Last year throughout the whole season, we were up around 130, 140.

O.P.: Have you reached your capacity yet, or are you under capacity?

J.D.: We’re averaging in the mid- to high 20s per night. So we’re not averaging capacity, but we have definitely hit capacity on a number of nights: 68 men, 27 women, one nonbinary, five veterans.

I think this is interesting: 39 people, or 40 percent of our clients, stay with us for zero to seven days. And then 19 people stayed 31 to 60 days, and 14 have stayed pretty much the whole season.

O.P.: So for the folks who are staying for the shorter visits: Are they couch surfing along with the shelter?

J.D.: That could be it; they could have other resources within the community. They could be passing through.

Recently, we have helped take some burden off the Greater Falls Warming Shelter and had some folks come down, so it could be that somebody comes down from there for a night or two and then they don’t come back to us. And they could still come back; we’re only halfway through the season.

So I use the data to give a thumbnail sketch of what’s going on, but it’s so hard to track. It’s really hard to know where everybody’s going and coming from.

O.P.: One reason I asked is that you need to bus people to the new location. I didn’t know if that would mean more people would stay or fewer people.

J.D.: I was thinking about this as well. It seems to be about the same. Last year, we had only 20 beds, so if we had 21 people, we were over capacity and we were over capacity almost half of the nights last year.

So this year, if we have 27 people, we’re now under capacity. Last year it felt like a big push. So the relationship to those numbers is a little bit different — even though we’re not at capacity we’re definitely averaging even more than we did last year.

Transportation is a challenge; we’ve worked out some of the kinks with that as well. I do worry about that being a barrier for folks. We’re doing everything that we can to get people to this shelter — multiple runs in the evening.

So if people are working — we have a handful of folks who don’t get off until 9 p.m., 11 p.m. — we actually go and pick them up and bring them up to the shelter. I feel thankful that we have the staff and the vehicle to do so.

We’re also taking people to the methadone clinic and the hub-and-spoke programs in the morning. I’m really thankful that we’ve been able to add that.

O.P.: I suspect that’s a new service that the people you’re working with appreciate, too, because when I hear from people who are trying to access these services, they say things like, “Oh, it’s one more thing I have to walk to.” It’s just one more burden when you don’t have a car.

J.D.: It’s one more barrier. We have a huge snowstorm coming in — you have to think about having to walk over to the clinic the next morning. The town gets the roads plowed pretty well, but the sidewalks take a little bit longer. And you’re walking on shoulders that are relatively treacherous.

We want to do everything we can to reduce barriers for folks to get the supports that they need.

O.P.: How about Great River Terrace?

J.D.: Great River Terrace is coming along. We’re kind of hanging on the periphery. We, along with HCRS, are going to be providing the services out there in partnership with Windham and Windsor Housing Trust. And so we’re meeting every couple of weeks now to finalize plans, get service plans in order, get everything ready to go.

We’re hoping to have a position start in late April or early May. We’ll have occupancy at the end of June, beginning of July. Ideally, by the end of September the units will be fully leased up.

O.P.: What’s the position?

J.D.: Groundworks will have a case manager out of Great River Terrace. HCRS will have a case manager out there and then Windham/Windsor Housing Trust will have a resident services coordinator. All of those positions will start to come online very soon.

O.P.: Oh, wow.

J.D.: It’s getting real. They had to tear down one of the structures out there — it was just so infested with black mold that they had to tear it down. But they’ve been able to stay on schedule and also within budget. So it’s unbelievable. They do a great job.

O.P.: Well, when it comes to black mold, usually tearing down is what you have left to do.

J.D.: Right. And so I’m pleased that they made that decision, a really tough decision they had to make in the moment.

Ultimately, I think what factored into Windham and Windsor Housing Trust’s decision to do that is because they’re creating housing for our community’s most vulnerable. We want to make sure that it is—

O.P.: —safe and healthy.

J.D.: Exactly.

O.P.: I think it’s a survival instinct that Vermont lives under in general — that idea of just making do. And sometimes people forget that making do and making sure someone is healthy and in a healthy space are not always the same thing.

J.D.: Yeah, it’s really tough. We face that within our own organization of making do with what we have and rubbing two stones together as opposed to really setting a vision and going after what we feel is the best vision. And I think it’s a balance between the two. We’re not going to have the Cadillac plan when we go out there, but we can definitely not have to just take anything that comes along. We can be very intentional about the spaces and the services that we provide.

O.P.: What about the camping fund raiser?

J.D.: We have a date: May 18 and 19. So right now I’m asking folks to mark the calendar.

Camp for a Common Cause is where we camp out on the Town Common, so we are starting to gear up for that and get the word out. It’s going to be a beautiful night. You know it’s going to be about 70 degrees. We reserved the weather ahead. (Laughter.)

The committee that’s working on this is working furiously to put together a great evening. The event is awareness-raising but also is a great time for folks to come together.

So much of our attention has been on the overflow shelter for the past few months. Can I give you a little bit more data about Groundworks Shelter?

O.P.: We have just about two minutes.

J.D.: The New England Patriots organization came and gave us a huge donation of blankets. Full disclosure: I’m from Atlanta, I’m an Atlanta Falcons fan, and I can say that now that this year’s Super Bowl is over.

We’re really thankful and think that it’s great that we made it onto a list for the Patriots. They donated blankets throughout New England. And I just think it’s huge. And we really appreciate it. We have some photos of kids who were able to pose with Pat the Patriot and then also the cheerleaders. So it’s fantastic. We really appreciate that.

Groundworks Shelter is a little different from the overflow shelter. It operates largely like transitional housing once people get in; we really want our case managers to work with them and make sure that they make a transition to sustainable housing.

Over the last quarter, we had 41 individuals, we had 16 households. About 50 percent of those exited to sustainable housing, that gave us about a 50-percent success rate.

It’s a little lower than I like to see it. I’d like to see that hover around 70 percent.

O.P.: Any thoughts on why that was off?

J.D.: It’s tough — it’s a range of issues. We only capture data in the moment when people leave. If people are leaving directly from the shelter to go into sustainable housing, that’s really a broad category. That could be a long-term treatment program. It could be space like the Phoenix House RISE (Recovery in an Independent, Sober Environment). It could be an apartment with a voucher. Or it could be moving in with a family member.

Otherwise, people could feel like the shelter is not a good fit and leave to something like couch surfing. We would not count that as sustainable housing.

And so we really work with folks as much as we can. We do have expectations when people come in the Groundworks Shelter. We try to work with everybody who comes through, but quite frankly it’s not the program for everybody at that time.

We do keep an open-door policy, so if it doesn’t work for you in January and you’re able to get back on the list and come back in and March, April, May, you’re more than welcome.

Length of stay: Our goal is 90 days for those who exit for housing; it was a 130-to-137-day stay in the shelter. Again, much longer than we’d like to see, because the shorter we can get those stays, the quicker we can get people into housing and the faster we can get people from our waitlist into the shelter.

We were able to serve only 24 percent of our waitlist over that period.

O.P.: Ouch.

J.D.: Which actually is a high number. Usually that number is around 15 percent. And so we did have more movement than usual, but it’s a bottleneck.

There’s a number of people who need housing resources. We have only so many beds. Once people are in those beds, we have only so many resources to help them get back into housing.

And it takes a long time.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #449 (Wednesday, March 7, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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