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Chloe Learey, executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, and Josh Davis, executive director of Groundworks Collaborative, stand outside a dormitory that was the new home of Brattleboro’s winter overflow shelter this past season.

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A snapshot of misery

Report on homelessness find nearly 1,300 homeless Vermonters; Groundworks reports 155 clients used overflow shelter in 2017-18

BRATTLEBORO—At the end of May, the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness and the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance released their annual count of homelessness.

The report counted the number of homeless people on one night: Jan. 31, 2018.

It includes data — sometimes across multiple years — on the demographics of homeless people, where they are sheltered if they have shelter, whether children are included in the household, and for how long they have been homeless.

The numbers don’t paint a positive picture: For most segments of the population, homelessness is on the rise. On that one night, 1,291 Vermonters were “literally homeless,” the report said, an increase of 66 people over last year’s count.

The only notable decrease was in the number of homeless children, which went down by two percentage points from the prior year. The 2018 report counted 292 people under 18 without a place to live. Approximately 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness were part of a household with at least one adult and one child.

Common challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness include severe mental illness and substance abuse, but the data doesn’t indicate if the individuals experienced these issues before losing their homes or after.

The study counted 151 people, or 12 percent, who reported they were homeless because they were fleeing domestic or sexual violence.

The number of homeless veterans increased 20 percent compared with the prior year, with 113 veterans counted in the study.

Race is also a factor in who is more likely to experience homelessness in Vermont.

According to the report, “A disproportionate number of people identified as Black or African American and Hispanic or Latino, compared to state demographics; 6.5 percent were Black or African American, compared to 1 percent of the state population; 4 percent were Hispanic or Latino, compared to 1 percent of the state population.”

To read the full report, visit helpingtohousevt.org.

The local picture

Groundworks Collaborative, the Brattleboro nonprofit that runs the Drop-In Center, the Morningside Shelter, and other programs to assist and house homeless people, recently issued its own “end of the season” report on the seasonal overflow shelter.

This shelter provides temporary, overnight housing for people during the coldest months of the year.

The 2017-18 season, which ran from Nov. 13, 2017 to April 30, 2018, was the first year the overflow shelter was located on the campus of the Winston Prouty Center. This new shelter provided more space to accommodate clients, and provided beds, and separate rooms for men, women, and transgender or gender non-binary people.

The new location required two additions: transportation from downtown to the Maple Street facility and additional paid staff. Previously, when the overflow shelter was located at the First Baptist Church, it was staffed by volunteers.

The paid staff allowed Groundworks to collect more consistent and thorough intakes on every person the shelter served. Whereas last year, only 128 of the 154 clients completed intakes, this year, all 155 clients were counted. This provided Groundworks with better data.

Because Groundworks received financial support from the town last year to fund the changes to the overflow shelter, Groundworks Executive Director Josh Davis and Director of Operations Rhianna Kenrick appeared at the June 5 regular Selectboard meeting to discuss their report, and the statewide count.

The trend nationwide and in Vermont, Kenrick said, “is the number of folks experiencing chronic homelessness is continuing to increase.”

Another increase from last year, she said, is the number of people released from psychiatric hospitals who come to the seasonal overflow shelter. Groundworks’s staff, Kenrick said, “work tirelessly, each year” with officials at the Brattleboro Retreat, to develop and maintain programs for the hospital’s released patients.

Mythbusting

Kenrick was adamant about reversing a common narrative about people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s a constant myth that there is an enormous amount of people who come to Vermont for better services and resources,” she said, and noted, “we are not seeing that as a trend."

“We constantly find that this is just a myth, and most people become homeless in the communities they were born in, raised in, or have significant connections in,” Kenrick said.

According to the overflow shelter’s data on 125 clients, 102 are from New England, 17 are from New England states other than Vermont, 6 are not from New England, and 82 are from Windham County.

“They truly are neighbors in our own community,” Kenrick said.

Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor noted the absence of children in the overflow shelter’s report. Kenrick explained that because the shelter is “low barrier,” and doesn’t turn away clients who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Groundworks officials work with other organizations, including its own Morningside shelter, to find places for women with children.

Davis noted he is working with officials at Winston Prouty on next season’s lease for the shelter. “But, our goal is to move the shelter back downtown,” he said.

His hope is that some of the chronically homeless people who utilize the overflow shelter will have their own homes soon in the Great River Terrace apartment complex.

Great River Terrace, located at the site of the former Lamplighter Inn motel, is currently wrapping up construction, and the ribbon-cutting will happen June 22, with leasing set to begin in early July.

Groundworks will collaborate with the Windham-Windsor Housing Trust and Health Care & Rehabilitation Services to provide housing and case management at the site. Half of the 22 studio apartments will be available to people experiencing chronic homelessness, and the other half will be occupied by very low-income individuals.

Delays seen

Some programs that won’t likely happen soon are the day-work jobs program and the donation drop-boxes. Both of those initiatives were discussed at Selectboard meetings in the past year, and both Town Manager staff and Groundworks staff researched them.

Drop-boxes were dropped, at least for now.

The idea behind the boxes is to provide a place for people to give money to people panhandling, but without the donors having to actually interact with those asking for money. The collected funds would go to some organization that would disperse the money, ostensibly to those who need it.

The discussion between Town Manager Peter B. Elwell and Board members mostly centered on what will happen to the money that ends up in the drop-boxes, and Elwell noted it’s too early to determine.

Elwell recommended waiting until the day-work jobs program was established, so the two could be “tied together.” Ultimately, he asked the Selectboard to table the issue until the June 19 meeting.

For the day-work jobs program, Davis told Board members he and his staff analyzed what other cities were doing. “After a year of looking at this, I’m sorry today, there’s not a clear path forward,” he said.

Issues Davis found were with reducing risk and liabilities for employers and employees. Also, he said, Groundworks doesn’t have the capacity to run this program.

But another Brattleboro organization might.

Emilie Kornheiser appeared at the June 5 Board meeting to discuss her new role creating a workforce development program at Youth Services. Although Youth Services has incorporated workforce development into its other programs, this is the first time the organization is managing a program in a focused way.

Kornheiser is working with small-business owners and clients on a “relationships-first” model, which includes strengthening workplace skills for clients and increasing community connections. This model, she said, will provide “much-needed wages” for Youth Services’s clients, whether they have “long-term career aspirations [or] they need money today, tomorrow, yesterday, [and] next week.”

Balancing requirements

The challenges Kornheiser said she has faced in developing a work program are how to respect union membership and labor’s role, how to avoid violating laws around unemployment insurance and liability, and how to still keep the program affordable for all parties. A conflict, she said, is between not requiring “lots of paperwork” from clients, and managing tax liability.

“We hope to come back in the fall with a solid plan,” Kornheiser said, and it will likely involve Groundworks. The idea, she said, is for Youth Services to provide administration of the program, and Groundworks to provide case management. Other partners, she said, include the Department of Labor.

She pointed out that Youth Services serves more than just youth, and their participants range from 12 to 100 years of age. Kornheiser also reported that Youth Services may soon change its name to better reflect the populations it serves.

The goal for the job program, she said, is “meeting people’s needs with dignity, and doing that today.”

The program will also follow a trauma-informed approach, Kornheiser said, and to that end, “choice is really important. We don’t want to put people in the position where this is a mandatory program. This is an optional program for folks who want it.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #463 (Wednesday, June 13, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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