BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro shed its winter coat on Friday as it enjoyed an afternoon where the temperatures approached 60 degrees.
It was a happy break from a long and snowy winter. Perhaps the biggest sigh of relief came from the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center’s staff.
They know that cold, hunger, and homelessness are a life-threatening combination.
“People come in hungry. Hungry and cold,” Drop In Center executive director Melinda Bussino told Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Shumlin toured the Drop In Center during an afternoon visit to Brattleboro on Friday.
The Drop In Center on South Main Street provides clothing and food to people struggling financially or homelessness. It also provides for other needs, such as a warm space to stay during the day, as well as a shower and a washing machine.
“We know how hard you all are working and there’s more demand then you’ve ever seen,” said Shumlin.
He spoke with Bussino and staff about the $300,000 in grants that the state is sending to homeless shelters. The grants are part of a $6 million Budget Adjustment Bill that Shumlin signed on Feb. 16. It is an annual act that makes a mid-course correction to the current fiscal year’s spending plan, based on changes in the challenges facing Vermont since lawmakers approved the budget last spring.
According to a press release from the Shumlin administration, the bill portions out $500,000 to combat homelessness. It includes grants to homeless shelters, as well as $200,000 in general assistance to help renters who late in their payments avoid eviction, and to aid homeless Vermonters with security deposits for housing.
“We have challenging decisions to make in this building moving forward,” Shumlin said in the press release. “It is imperative that – just as we did in passing the Budget Adjustment bill – we work cooperatively to balance the needs of Vermonters with their ability to pay for those services.”
The bill also calls for approximately $19 million from the federal Jobs Bill to help schools experiencing budget constraints.
Vermonters with traumatic brain injuries can expect $700,000 in assistance through the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.
Finally, the bill provides $280,000 to the Department for Children and Families to supply living assistance to the elderly, blind and disabled.
Standing in the Drop In’s narrow food shelf area surrounded by donations like canned beans and bread, Bussino told Shumlin that during the center’s previous fiscal year, the center staff handed out over 56,000 bags of groceries.
“The number of clients who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless is up, but the big jump, 33 percent in the Food Shelf and about 26 percent in the homeless, was last year,” Bussino said.
She has also seen a change in clients’ zip codes with more people claiming “053” as home base than in previous years. She’s also seeing more working poor, she said.
About one-third of the clients are veterans, said Bussino. They come to the center because they are uncomfortable with the Veteran’s Administration (VA) system. But, she said, there are better VA caseworkers in the area now helping veterans.
She said in general, more people access the center’s food shelf in the winter because they are choosing between paying for heat or paying for food.
Bussino showed Shumlin the garage where the center stores other food and supplies, like blankets.
She pointed to the pallets of cookies and shelves of soda.
Although grateful for the donations, not all the food is nutritious she said. Sugar, provides many homeless clients with the bulk of their daily calories.
After his tour of the Drop In Center, Shumlin responded to criticism that his budget has hit human services programs too hard.
“We designed a budget that holds our most vulnerable Vermonters harmless from any cuts,” he said.
Shumlin declined to define what qualified someone as vulnerable or “poorest of the poor,” because qualifiers like income ranges don’t provide the whole picture.
But he did say that some of the criticism lobbed at his budget decisions did not take in all the facts, such as the $175 million budget shortfall forecast for fiscal year 2012, or the administration’s desire to create efficiencies in the state’s big bureaucracies as a way to lower costs.
Bussino said the Drop In Center always needs donations of food and personal care items. Tuna, peanut butter, canned meals; cereal and vegetables are the greatest need as well as deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, and diapers.
In the winter, clients need warm winter clothes and boots. In the spring, the center will need tents, tarps, and space blankets.
To contact the Drop In Center, visit www.brattleborodropin.org or call Melinda Bussino at 800-852-4286, ext. 103.