The shame of Bellows Falls

The Rockingham Zoning Board of Adjustment should be ashamed of itself.

Because of the pettiness and mean-spiritedness that is part and parcel of politics in Bellows Falls and Rockingham, a necessary service for those in need is still not open this winter.

This would have been the shelter's third year and the second year at Westminster Street, beneath Athens Pizza, a few doors down from the Riverview housing complex.

There were few complaints about the shelter last winter. This year, the opposition started early, and the volume of complaints was totally out of proportion with the reality of the situation.

As a result, the zoning board deadlocked 3-3 on a permit for this season, and in effect, rejected the shelter's application by its failure to approve it.

Now, 100 Nights, a group that operates a winter shelter in Keene, N.H., announced late last week that it will open a 15-bed overnight shelter at the Westminster Street site, with or without a permit, on Dec. 20.

100 Nights will keep the shelter open while the Greater Falls group appeals the zoning board's decision.

The shelter opponents started complaining about 100 Nights' plan almost as soon as it was announced.

We have zero sympathy for them.

* * *

In Brattleboro, an overflow shelter on Main Street in the First Baptist Church sits right in the heart of the downtown area. It has functioned safely and with almost no problems for the last few years.

It's not that Brattleboro's homeless people are better behaved, or that those who minister to Brattleboro's homeless are better caregivers. It's that in Brattleboro, there was no opposition to starting the shelter.

Why? Because taking care of those among us who have the least is not seen as something controversial. It is seen has something that must be done.

In Bellows Falls, Our Place Drop-In Center does tremendous work, but it is equipped to take care of only the daytime needs of the poor and homeless.

When night falls, nothing is available, and people are left to fend for themselves.

* * *

Cathy Bergmann, a former president of the Bellows Falls Village Trustees who has led the opposition to the shelter, writes that “it's not that we are heartless, for we are far from that! It's that we don't feel this shelter does enough for these people, that it enables their lifestyle rather than help them off the streets and to a healthy, clean, productive existence.”

This explanation is like lecturing owners of a house on fire that they should have done more to prevent the blaze from breaking out in the first place.

Bergmann is correct on many points. Yes, there should be improved access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

Yes, there should be more money invested in affordable housing in Vermont.

Yes, there should be expanded job training programs for those who are out of work.

Yes, there should be more social welfare spending to help the jobless, the mentally ill, the homeless, the sick, the elderly, the young, and everyone else who is having problems surviving in the current economic climate.

And yes, it is quite possible that some of the people who need a warm place to stay at night might live an unhealthy, dirty, unproductive existence by the standards of those of us lucky enough to have food, shelter, work, sufficient physical and mental health, and other resources.

That doesn't mean that a civil society lets them freeze. No one on the local, state, or federal levels is doing anything substantive about these issues. And the roots of homelessness run insidiously deep.

In the meantime, the people in need - the people who have place to go other than the streets - can't wait around for the election of public officials who might change these circumstances.

They need a bed, and a meal, and a warm place to sleep. And they need it tonight.

* * *

In her letter, Bergmann expresses frustration that criticism of her and other critics of the shelter - in this newspaper and in other publications, as well as by their opponents in Bellows Falls - paints them as heartless.

Perhaps opponents are expressing, as best as they can and in their own way, some measure of compassion that they think is best for the village or even for people who would use the shelter. Perhaps they truly believe that that this criticism is unfairly maligning their integrity.

But by any yardstick, their public logic is brazen, disingenuous, and questionable. Their rhetoric is shocking and offensive. Their attitude is cold. And the effects of their activism on the issue can literally be deadly.

Shame on the people of Bellows Falls and Rockingham who do not think an overnight homeless shelter is a priority. Shame on those who ginned up fear and hysteria, misinformation, and misconceptions.

And most of all, shame on the three Rockingham zoning board members who agreed with this demagoguery.

Citizens expressing their opinions about the issue have every right to be wrongheaded, even chillingly mean, if they choose.

That doesn't mean that town officials should agree with them.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates