BRATTLEBORO—For the past several years, Groundworks Collaborative has tried to solve two seemingly intractable problems: finding a permanent home for the Seasonal Overflow Shelter (SOS) and finding enough space for the services that its Drop-In Center provides to the region’s homeless population.
It turned out that the solution was right next door.
On Nov. 25, the nonprofit made it official: The SOS will make its permanent home in a 5,800-square-foot building on the now-vacant lot at 54 South Main St., next door to the existing site of the Drop-In Center, whose services would move there as well.
The current Drop-In Center at 60 South Main St. would be used as office space for Groundworks’ staff.
It’s a big undertaking for the region’s largest nonprofit provider of services to those experiencing homelessness.
According to Groundworks’ Executive Director Josh Davis, the construction project will cost $3.3 million.
The organization has already secured more than $2.2 million in funding and will need to raise an additional $500,000 to open by November 2020.
The SOS opened for its third season at the Winston Prouty Center, its temporary headquarters on the former campus of the Austine School for the Deaf.
The overflow shelter was originally located in the basement of the First Baptist Church on Main Street, but it had to move when the church property was sold to Omega Optical founder Bob Johnson three years ago.
Groundworks considered buying a former auto body repair shop on Frost Street, but abandoned those plans for financial reasons at the time, Davis told The Commons in 2016. Neighbors voiced strenuous opposition as well.
Davis said the organization wanted to keep the Drop-In Center and the SOS close to downtown, within easy access of the bulk of their clients.
Other than the Foodworks Food Shelf, which opened in August at 141 Canal St., and Morningside Shelter, a long-term shelter for homeless families on Royal Road, “We wanted to get everything under one roof,” Davis said in a Nov. 22 interview at the Prouty Center.
Accommodations for 60 during the day, 34 at night
The new building will be constructed on the site of a former Colonial-era home that was torn down recently, despite its historic nature. Davis said the building, constructed around 1780, was too deteriorated to save.
The new building will include shared space that be can converted each day and night to house both the Day Shelter services at the Drop-In Center as well as the SOS, which is open nightly during the winter months, usually between mid-November and mid-April.
It will seat around 60 people during the day, and to provide shelter for 34 people at night, who will sleep on beds that can be rolled out into the space.
The new building will offer restrooms with showers, a laundry room, a full kitchen and food pantry, and lockers where clients can store their belongings.
The current Drop-In Center will consolidate a number of Groundworks’ programs and administrative offices, now spread over five sites throughout Brattleboro.
Renovation on the current building will begin after the new structure is finished, to ensure that services will not be disrupted. Once work is complete, 60 South Main St. will become home to Groundworks Case Management services, the Representative Payee program, and the organization’s collaborations with the Brattleboro Retreat, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, and HCRS.
The need remains
The need for Groundworks’ services hasn’t diminished, Davis said, and the new campus “is not a silver bullet,” he warned.
“It’s not going to cure all our ills, but it will help us do our job better,” said Davis.
He has long maintained that a number of complex problems are in play in dealing with homelessness, but the ongoing opioid crisis in Vermont “has changed the complete tenor of the conversation.”
It’s hard enough for most people experiencing homelessness to get back on their feet, he said, but it is even harder when one is dealing with drug addiction. That’s why Groundworks is working with so many community agencies and organizations.
Accurate figures on the extent of homelessness are hard to come by. Last year, 134 different clients used the SOS over the season. Morningside houses 15 families, and there is a waiting list.
Using what’s known as “coordinated entry,” or the list of anyone who is experiencing homelessness and seeks help, Davis said the agency counted 254 people who were homeless between July 1 and Sept. 30 of this year.
Of that that number, 181 were adults, 46 were younger than 18, and 27 were of unknown age.
As for people who use the Drop-In Center’s services, Davis said 80 percent are from the Brattleboro area.
Access to more affordable housing and better supportive services can make a dent in the size of the homeless population, Davis said, but until more state and federal funding reaches human services, and governments make a sustained commitment toward creating public policy to deal with the problem, organizations like Groundworks will still be needed.
Davis said a combination of sources are funding the project.
Public funding is coming from the Vermont Community Development Program, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and the town of Brattleboro, while private funds include grants from the Thomas Thompson Trust and Jane’s Trust, as well as nearly $1.2 million raised from individual donors in the silent phase of the project’s capital campaign to date.
“It’s not going to be easy to raise money,” said Davis, “but we live in a very generous community [where donors] have put their money where their values are.”
Davis said it helped that the Drop-In Center’s neighbors on South Main Street have “been largely positive.”
“We searched high and low for space for our offices and the shelter, but there was nothing that was affordable and near downtown,” he said. “The pros of this project is that we’re established here and people know us. The cons are that this new space will be filled from Day 1.”
He said interested community members and donors can visit GroundworksVT.org for regular updates on progress and ways to give.