In Brattleboro, a winter shelter keeps its home for one final season

Groundworks still investigating possible campus on Frost Street

BRATTLEBORO — The uncertainty surrounding the location of this year's seasonal nighttime shelter has been resolved.

At least for this year.

Groundworks Collaborative will open the ninth annual Seasonal Overflow Shelter (SOS) on Nov. 15 at the First Baptist Church at 190 Main St.

It's likely to be the last winter that the Baptist Church will house the SOS.

The emergency winter shelter will provide warm and safe sleeping space for homeless community members. Dinner will be served nightly.

According to Groundworks' Executive Director Josh Davis, “We were uncertain as to whether or not we were going to be able to hold the shelter at the church this season, as the congregation is hoping to sell the property.”

Groundworks has secured an option to purchase 39 Frost St., an approximately 3,200-square-foot property that was an auto body repair shop.

The organization seeks to create a single point of entry for its services, programs, and winter shelter. Its two current properties - the Groundworks Drop In Center, a day shelter at 60 South Main St., and the Groundworks Shelter at 81 Royal Road, a residential shelter - have reached capacity.

The Frost Street site might fit the bill for the organization's goal of having a day and overflow shelter on the same campus. Davis cautioned that the property requires vetting to discover if retrofitting the building would meet Groundworks' needs or budget.

Groundworks launched a feasibility study and environmental review of 39 Frost, and the organization intends to do its due diligence, Davis said.

It has also reached out to community organizations such as the Frost-Elm-Elliot Triangle (FEET) community group. More opportunities for community feedback will also be available.

Getting the building ready to host the SOS this season would have been possible but a gamble, Davis said. It would have cost up to $30,000 to fund temporary quick fixes to make the building ready by the Nov. 15 opening date, and he thought it wasn't a good use of the organization's limited resources.

“We're trying to be cognizant of how we spend taxpayers and donors' dollars,” he said.

One more year

The First Baptist Church leadership worked with Groundworks to keep the seasonal shelter at the church one more year.

“Frost Street would have been difficult for us to get set up and ready for this season - we're relieved that the church leadership was so supportive and we were able to work together to come up with a solution,” said Davis. “We just got all the details in place and can announce this season's location at the church.”

Davis noted that although temperatures in September and October had remained on the warm side as late as last week, Groundworks staff are already seeing clients with illnesses like pneumonia.

Volunteers needed

“Groundworks' name is on this, but this is a community project,” Davis said.

According to Davis, a group of organizations, including the Drop-In Center, came together nine years ago to launch the overflow shelter.

Without volunteers, the SOS cannot operate, Davis said.

A dedicated group of individuals have kept those needing the shelter fed and safe for eight years, Davis said, but more are needed.

Groundworks again seeks volunteer support for overnight shifts and meal teams.

“We need to be ready to open when the weather turns cold, which has been as early as the beginning of November in years past. That means we need to get volunteers trained and signed up for shifts as soon as possible,” said Rhianna Kendrick, Groundworks Drop-In Center director and this year's SOS coordinator.

“The overnight shifts are perfect for night owls, students, or people that work a night shift - we also rely heavily on retirees. This is a community effort and couldn't happen without huge volunteer support,” said Kendrick.

A shift in strategy

Davis said staff is curious to see how many people will use the SOS this season.

Over the spring and summer months, Groundworks staff have found long-term housing for approximately a dozen shelter clients, he said.

“People are doing well,” Davis said of the newly housed community members. “This is the housing-first model everyone's excited about.”

Under the model, people facing homelessness are assisted in finding housing before receiving other services like substance abuse counseling or medical care.

Some people do well under this model right from the start, Davis added; other people need more support.

Landlords have been supportive as well, he said.

Next steps

Groundworks is developing a new model for itself, said Davis, moving from an enabling model to one of engagement.

Enabling clients means providing shelter space and being done with it, he said. Engaging includes sitting down with clients and asking, “What do you want?”

For some clients, the answer might be, “Find housing,” Davis said. For other clients, they might want to “sleep out.”

A series of community conversations around solving homelessness took place at The Works Bakery Café on Main Street in the spring.

Groundworks and The Commons will pick up where some of these conversations left off at a special Voices Live! event, “Myths & Realities of Homelessness,” at the First Baptist Church, 190 Main St., on Friday, Nov. 6. Doors open at 5 p.m. The event starts at 6 p.m.

Davis, who noted that most of the homeless community members in Brattleboro are here because they have ties to the area, is aware that some community members are uncomfortable about having homeless shelters in their neighborhoods.

Instead of viewing fellow community members as the scary “other,” Davis asked, how would the situation change if the community focused on folding everyone in together? What if the community was as passionate about solving homelessness as it was about keeping homeless people out of town?

He addressed the point bluntly.

“We don't want another homeless shelter,” he said. “We'd rather invest in long-term housing.”

Right now, however, a shelter meets many community members' immediate needs, Davis said.

“But until we talk about systemic issues, we're going to have to talk about having bigger and bigger homeless shelters,” he said.

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