Keene group plans to open overnight shelter in BF

100 Nights vows to open in Bellows Falls, with or without a temporary permit

BELLOWS FALLS — A nonprofit organization from Keene N.H., 100 Nights, will open an overnight warming shelter in Bellows Falls, founder Don Primrose said.

Where that shelter will be located is still up in the air.

Seeking a temporary permit for the shelter, Primrose said that he is just responding to a need following the permit denial of the Greater Falls Overnight Warming Shelter last month, based on a tie vote of the zoning board [The Commons, Dec. 7].

Hoping for a temporary permit in Bellows Falls, Primrose said 100 Nights has begun conversations with several landowners but has not identified a specific location for the overnight warming shelter yet.

“The permit is secondary to being open,” Primrose vowed. “We'll open no matter what.”

Primrose said that the shelter will open on Dec. 21, the day when he and others will participate in a nationwide Homeless Person's Memorial Day.

A candlelight vigil to acknowledge the names of homeless people who have died in Vermont in the last year will take place in the Square in downtown Bellows Falls, Primrose said, and “We'll be opening the doors of the shelter right after.”

He added that local religious leaders will perform a “blessing of the doors” as the shelter opens.

“We want people to feel it's a safe place to find safe overnight shelter for those who need it, and it's a way to involve the community,” said Primrose, calling the shelter “a matter of life and death.”

“There's no other agenda here,” he said. “It's very real that more homeless people die during the winter.”

Meanwhile, the Greater Falls Overnight Warming Shelter board has submitted an appeal of the Rockingham Zoning Board's permit denial to the Vermont Environmental Board.

The shelter board has no idea when the court will take up its appeal, and GFOWS Chair Louise Luring said that it seems unlikely any decision will be forthcoming before January.

“The appeal goes before the state's Environmental Division, which currently has only one sitting judge,” Luring said. “He will schedule a hearing during which all 'interested parties' can give testimony.”

Once the judge renders a decision, she added, “that decision can be appealed and the case would go before the Vermont Supreme Court.”

“We have started that process,” Luring said.

One of the most vocal opponents to having a warming shelter downtown is Cathy Bergmann, a former president of the Bellows Falls Village Trustees, who insists the shelter is “an ill-conceived idea” that does not do enough for its clients.

“In my opinion, nothing could more enable the spread and contagion of this hideous and disabling epidemic than this ill-thought out, short-term, weather dependent Band-Aid,” Bergmann told The Commons.

“But the GFWS Board [...] have enabled [the homeless] to stay on the edge,” Bergmann continued. “They got them through another winter of hopelessness, another winter of loneliness, sickness, struggle - yes siree, they have done a great good.”

Primrose said critics are missing the point.

“There are always drug addicts and alcoholics [using a shelter], but when it really gets me is when I open the door to the shelter at 7 p.m., and there's a 5-year-old standing at the front of the line,” he said.

“That child did not choose to live this way,” Primrose said. “He didn't make a choice to be there.”

Keene shelter

Primrose, a former construction worker who returned to college to get a degree in education (“which I haven't used at all,” he said), describes how he started the shelter in Keene.

“A few years ago, I was having a conversation with our then-mayor,” he recalled. “He was telling me that Keene didn't have a homeless problem, but I just knew that wasn't true.”

“Once I decided to open the shelter for these invisible people [who] no one wanted to admit existed, the first night we were open, we filled 16 beds,” he said.

Primrose was irked that the homeless were consigned to anonymity.

“Most people are only a paycheck or two away from being homeless themselves, and it's scary to them,” he said. “They're afraid it could happen to them, and they don't want to look at homelessness as it exists.”

“Purely and simply, [whole communities] are denying these people's stories, denying their existence. All any of is, is our stories,” he added. “Denying these people even exist doesn't help them.”

He said that last year there were 86 or 87 children in the Keene school district who were homeless, either living on someone's couch, living in a car, or living on the streets.

He said that 100 Nights also does something few other shelters for the homeless do: “We put a sign up.”

“You go into a community and it's hard to find where its homeless are sheltered,” he said. “ There are no directions, no signs. It's not visible to the public.”

“People need to know homelessness exists in their community, and those people need to know where to go,” he said. “It's part of the public education process.”

Donna Chambers began volunteering in 2009, the first year 100 Nights was open, and “it really opened her eyes,” Primrose said.

“I honestly didn't think there was a problem with homelessness in our community,” Chambers said.

“There is a definite need in [Bellows Falls]. We aren't going to stand by and do nothing with people freezing to death outside,” she added. “Those are human beings in the cold.”

Primrose said 100 Nights does not duplicate other community services, but the shelter does post housing and provide job boards, and will assist anyone in connecting with the resources they need, be they housing, food, shelter, child care, or clothing.

“We had a lot of success last year getting people housing and jobs,” Primrose explained. “When someone would return [to the Keene Drop In Center or shelter] and announce they had found housing, or found a job, everyone would give a hurray, and an atta-boy or -girl...and inspire someone else.”

“Inevitably, I'd see people filling out paperwork or scheduling a job interview later that day,” Primrose said. “It's all about supporting people, encouraging them each step of the way.”

Employers he spoke with said that they were impressed that “people kept showing up every day, first thing in the morning,” in spite of their homelessness or bad weather.

Primrose said 100 Nights will not provide food at the shelter in Bellows Falls as the GFOWS has done in the past.

But “if there is a day the Drop In Center isn't open, we might ask the community for donations of sandwiches or something to the shelter,” Primrose explained.

Community education

“One of the things we do is community education about homelessness because most people don't understand what it is,” he said. “They'd rather not deal with it.”

“One day, I was speaking to two classes that combined to about 35 or 36 kids at a middle school [in Keene],” he said. “Out of those kids, I recognized at least three from the shelter.”

“That same day, a note was forwarded to me via several other people from [another] kid in the audience who said, 'I'm living in a car.'”

Primrose said there are more than 80 volunteers at the shelter, and another 20 in their Drop In food center in Keene. He will be depending on volunteers from the community in Bellows Falls.

He has begun the process of training shelter volunteers in Rockingham. The next training will be held Dec. 18 at the Drop In Center in Bellows Falls.

100 Nights opens Dec. 21 and runs through March 29.

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