We're not heartless

‘This village has always cared, has always had a heart, and has always felt deeply for the safety and well-being of all its neighbors’

BELLOWS FALLS — In the past few weeks, editorials, letters, and articles have been written about the Greater Falls Warming Shelter. Most have been supportive of the shelter and hopeful of the outcome of the zoning board decision.

As most of you know, that decision was passed down and was a tie. Because of this vote, the GFWS will not be opening at this time.

After this decision, more letters, editorials, and articles appeared in our local papers, most critical of the board's decision, and of the citizens who had opposed the shelter's existence.

Some were quite harsh, calling the citizens, board, and the Village of Bellows Falls ”heartless” and “unfeeling.”

Some critics called the board's decision and reasons “red herrings”. Some pointed out that once again Bellows Falls showed itself as a community that “didn't care.”

I want to take this space and time to point out some truths that have not been written about, some facts that might show that this village has always cared, has always had a heart, and has always felt deeply for the safety and well-being of all of its neighbors.

This village also respects the rules, believes in following through with promises, and knows that reaching out to partners and neighbors in the planning stages of a project like the Greater Falls Warming Shelter is a major key to success.

Lastly, many of us believe in honesty and integrity when in public office, the value of an honest day's work, and the grace of selfless, anonymous giving.

None of the first three goals were achieved by the board or volunteers of the GFWS and, as a result, the shelter became an unwelcome addition to the neighborhood.

There were other reasons for the people at Riverview Apartments whom I spoke for.

After many long discussions and much thought, the people here that were being represented concluded that the location was inappropriate.

The shelter was in the basement of a popular family restaurant (Athens Pizza) where teens and tweens hung out all week. It also sat in the middle of a well-established, single-family-home neighborhood that includs two high-end bed-and-breakfasts.

Another reason was that the space was not handicapped accessible and that the restaurant and the shelter shared the same ventilation system, which caused much concern among the people who regularly ordered from the restaurant.

The most bothersome reason remains the fact that the GFWS had become a temporary and seasonal stopgap for people who landed here in Bellows Falls: the itinerant, addicted, mentally ill, and overflow from shelters in Brattleboro and other valley towns.. It seemed that as soon as the weather got better these people became invisible and no longer were of concern to the Warming Shelter board.

While being interviewed, I was asked if I wasn't concerned about the safety of these people. They could freeze to death!

I was concerned, but I was also concerned about the long-term issues of their homelessness, not just the one aspect of the winter and the weather. Why wasn't someone helping them out of their homelessness? A hand up instead of a hand out?

Vermont mandates a service officer for each town, and I knew that we had one. I knew that this was the safety net that would and should be in place to catch and save our residents who had fallen on hard and dire times.

I knew who our service officer was, but I needed to make sure of my facts.

One person told me that the Rockingham service officer stated “They do sometimes act in that capacity, but it's usually a one-time thing, like a domestic dispute where someone gets kicked out on Christmas Eve.”

Regarding the people who use the shelter, this person said that the situation is too “ongoing” and there was only $500 in the budget.

Well, I found this extremely interesting after I looked up the state statute, which reads, “The duties of town service officers are to receive applications for assistance, to investigate, make determinations of eligibility for general assistance, grant from funds advanced to him or her for emergency general assistance and to perform other duties, including such investigations, under the welfare code as the commissioner may direct.”

I believe the whole idea is to help it become less ”ongoing.”

During the last town appointment period in May/June, the town service officer reappointed herself for “one more term” in open meeting before FACT 10 television cameras. The budget allocates $1,000 as a aline item for this purpose.

The most interesting thing about this service officer is that she serves on the boards of the Greater Falls Warming Shelter and the Rockingham Selectboard.

However, this service officer has not told the reporter the real truth about the duties of that job. The service officer is not fulfilling the duties of that job, according to her own statement.

So is she using the Greater Falls Warming Shelter as a reason for not executing the duties as service officer of Rockingham/Bellows Falls/Saxtons River/Cambridgeport/Bartonsville?

Now I'm truly confused.

Oh, by the way, if you'd like to get some answers to this - and I know I would - you would need to contact Ann DiBernardo, who holds all three positions.

In conclusion, 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 to a healthy, clean, productive existence.

That the location is inappropriate, and that the Greater Falls Warming Shelter board didn't reach out to the neighbors are two other major reasons that the neighbors felt they were not considered.

Lastly, three other neighbors complained of broken rules at the wee hours of the morning, but instead of agreeing there were mistakes made and they would increase their oversight, members of the board called well-known business owners and citizens “liars.”

Not a good way to form a partnership.

I have asked twice to sit down, talk, and work together. Another gentleman here at Riverview has also asked for the same.

The only response we have gotten from anyone from the GFWS group is for one of the ladies here at Riverview to be verbally attacked by a member who also resides here.

How unfortunate for the future of the GFWS and our Village.

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