BRATTLEBORO—Weather permitting, the Brattleboro Emergency Overflow Shelter at the First Baptist Church will be closing for the season in mid-April.
For the people who use the shelter, that closing date means the start of the second season of homelessness and another six months of sleeping in cars, in tents, or on friends’ couches.
Lucie Fortier, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, says that as Morningside Shelter is at full capacity with a significant waiting list year-round, the Overflow Shelter is the only option, particularly for homeless people struggling with alcohol or drug problems.
“There is a real need for a year-round ‘damp’ shelter,” Fortier said, referring to Morningside’s prohibition of alcohol use, and the Overflow Shelter’s policy of toleration.
But Fortier was quick to point out that more families are coming to the Overflow Shelter, and it is not really a place for children to stay. However, when a family is out of options and cannot get into Morningside, Fortier said she will take them in.
As of Jan. 31, the last time a formal census was taken, Fortier said 128 people had used the Overflow Shelter in the 2012-13 season. By the time she does the next headcount, she said that number will easily be higher than the 133 who used the shelter in the 2011-12 season.
That’s why the Drop In Center and Morningside Shelter are teaming up on a fundraiser that they’re calling “Camp for a Common Cause.” It seeks to call attention to the extent of homelessness in the Brattleboro area, and to help area people make it through the second season of homelessness.
All are invited to camp out on the Brattleboro Common to raise money to be split evenly between the two organizations. Campers are encouraged to raise $100 or more for the effort, then pitch a tent the night of Friday, May 3, to camp out on the Common. The goal for this event is to raise a collective $20,000.
Peter “Fish” Case, the morning host on WKVT-FM, will lead the charge onto the Common and help raise awareness during a day-long broadcast. The event will come to a close the following morning with a breakfast on the Common that will be open to the community and will act as an additional means to raise funds.
Telling their stories
During a Monday morning news conference at the Overflow Shelter, Fortier, Morningside Shelter executive director Josh Davis, and the Rev. Suzanne Andrews, pastor of First Baptist Church, were joined by four men who have been helped by the Drop In Center and the Overflow Shelter and told their stories.
Ferris Cathey grew up in New York City and did two tours of duty in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. He said he managed to find steady work after the war, and ended up Brattleboro working for Northeast Cooperatives (now United Natural Foods). But alcoholism fueled a downward spiral he could not break out of.
“I lost everything, and I mean everything — my job, my home, my car, my marriage,” he said.
He credits the Drop In Center for helping to straighten him out.
“I got tired of it all and went to the Drop In Center and said I didn’t want to do this anymore,” Cathey said. “I’ve been clean ever since.”
Now, he works as a receptionist at the Drop In Center and does some part-time cleaning work.
“I was there,” said Cathey, pointing to a spot on the floor in the shelter where he used to sleep. “Now I got my own place, but I wouldn’t have anything now without the Drop In Center.”
Kevin Regan also struggles with alcoholism. He said his life started out “fine and dandy until I started drinking.” By his 40s, he also hit bottom and went into detox.
Regan said he was in a homeless shelter in Springfield, Mass., right after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. “I ran into someone there and they told me to come up to Brattleboro to the Drop In Center. I’ve been here ever since.”
He said he works downtown, shoveling sidewalks in the winter and doing other odd jobs for merchants during other months. “Brattleboro is a wonderful town,” he said. “I love the people here.”
Victoro Johnson said he grew up in Newfane and enlisted in the Marines out of high school. He fought in the first Gulf War in 1991, and said his health rapidly deteriorated after that. He ended up in the Overflow Shelter. Now, he is a volunteer at the shelter and the Drop In Center “to give back what they gave to me.”
The last man who spoke, identifying himself as F.E.H., has been homeless off and on since the 1980s. The first time was by choice, when he decided to live in a cave for three years. “I was never more at peace than I was in that cave,” he said.
He didn’t get into detail about the subsequent times he was homeless, but said that he landed at the Overflow Shelter three years ago. He said he gets by picking up lost change off the sidewalk and “by the grace of God.”
Need keeps growing
Davis pointed out that about three-quarters of the people his shelter serves list Vermont as their last permanent address. While Brattleboro is known as a relatively compassionate town, he said that the whole region has a responsibility to take care of those in need.
“This is a community issue,” Davis said, “and we need to work together to take care of all our community members.”
Fortier said budget cuts on the state and federal level are “definitely having an impact” on the increased numbers of clients at Morningside and the Drop In Center. “The lack of jobs here isn’t helping either,” she added.
The Overflow Shelter has been open at First Baptist during the winter months since 2007, and Rev. Andrews admits that she has seen some members of her congregation leave her church because of the shelter.
“This is one of our most important missions,” she said. “I’m proud and honored that our homeless come here, and humbled to be a part of this.”
“We have people who have jobs, but don’t make enough money to pay rent,” said Fortier of her clients. “There are human stories behind someone who becomes homeless, and many of us are only a couple of paychecks away from homelessness. We need to remember that they are human beings and should be treated with respect. That’s why we want to get their stories out.”