Pandemic frees up shelter for homeless people

As the COVID-19 crisis has unleashed countless consequences — not all of them negative — regional leaders describe the sudden impact on homelessness, drug trafficking, and other civic challenges

BRATTLEBORO — Amid the economic and physical health devastations that the novel coronavirus has brought, some good news emerged this week: every homeless and housing-insecure person that Groundworks Collaborative serves has a roof overhead tonight, and a door that they can close behind them.

Lodging in Windham County is shut to anyone but those termed essential personnel and, according to one receptionist at Motel 6, guests there have mainly been truckers and a few traveling nurses.

But the motel is also open to people who lack permanent shelter, including approximately 100 clients served by Groundworks.

“The fact is that people have a place to go - people have shelter and the ability to close their door and have privacy,” said Joshua Davis, the executive director of Groundworks. “If there's any way we can keep it going, we're going to do everything we can to support folks.”

Vermont is not set to open to tourist business again until June 15, and it is unclear what will happen after that in terms of Groundworks clients retaining this housing solution.

Davis expressed hope that the current situation in housing provides “proof of concept” that the idea of “shelter first” works.

Many previous efforts to address homelessness focused on addressing complications in the lives of people who needed help (like treatment for substance use). “Shelter first” is a model that starts with one premise: that any problems that people might have will be far easier to solve if they have a home.

Other consequences from the shutdown - positive and otherwise - have come to light when it comes to the recent controversies of homelessness and people soliciting money on the street.

These difficult issues, such a prominent source of tension in downtown in recent years, seem ameliorated for a moment, with the streets empty, most businesses shuttered, and foot traffic gone.

Along the way, “quality-of-life complaints have literally plummeted,” said Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald, discussing calls that involve people who may be trespassing or otherwise are seen as a public nuisance.

In this period of the COVID-19 crisis, even on a warm April day, the streets downtown are basically silent and almost empty of people.

“Normally, when the overflow shelters [have closed] and we get some beautiful days like today, it's just a lot of quality-of-life complaints, and now they're not even calling,” Fitzgerald said.

In past years, when the overflow shelter run by Groundworks closes down, outreach workers gave out tents and other survival gear to those forced to seek refuge on their own.

This year, things are different. And, for at least a brief time, no one slept in the parks or streets.

'Interrupting homelessness'

Groundworks had other good news last week: It received a $50,000 grant from the Vermont Community Development Program.

With that money, and the first measures to relax the rules governing physical distancing put forward by Vermont Gov. Phil Scott last week, the organization is ready to start construction next Monday on revamping and expanding its facilities and overnight shelter on South Main Street.

The facility, with 34 beds, will provide a stable home for supporting a local population of people who are housing-insecure or lack shelter.

Davis expressed hope that all of those beds may not be necessary - that even on some nights in cold weather they will sit unused because people already have housing.

It took a pandemic to put such housing into reach.

“In a matter of a couple of weeks, we've gone from people being precariously housed in the community, being in the overflow shelter, to being in motels with a roof over their head and a door they can close,” Davis said.

He acknowledged that the situation may be temporary, and that affordable housing in Windham County continues to be a critical issue.

“I think that in a lot of ways we've ended homelessness, or we've interrupted homelessness, through this crisis,” said Davis. “And, you know, this is something we've talked about for years as a goal for our organization, as something that is possible to do.”

“And yet, year after year, we have the same numbers, and so it's like we have been managing homelessness as opposed to really trying to end it,” Davis said.

Crime, drugs go underground

The challenges that the region has faced for several years - among them, substance-use disorder and petty crime - have not gone away. They just have gone underground.

Drugs still flow up to the hub town of Brattleboro from cities to the south, and Chief Fitzgerald speculated that with the state Agency of Transportation monitoring the state borders on Interstate 91, dealers might be using state and U.S. highways instead.

He acknowledged that there is no real way to stop the trafficking of opiates into the area. He added that he has seen no decrease in the challenge of opioid addiction and the overdoses that have afflicted the community for several years.

The real issue for Fitzgerald is not to let drugs gain a foothold within town, to prevent dealers from setting up shop by preying on tenants and opening up an apartment from which they deal drugs.

“There's certainly no shortage of drugs running up here, and I am sure they have adapted to the circumstances,” said Fitzgerald.

When the dealers “cultivate vulnerable people,” the chief added, “that truly is where the victimization begins, and what they'll do is find someone that is truly vulnerable, whether that be [in terms of] financial, mental health issues, physical issues, or addiction issues.”

Removing a dealer who has embedded locally takes time, and “in the end, the only person that suffers was the renter, the person that stayed there.”

Such victims can find themselves “basically thrown out of their housing,” and they might end up with a criminal record.

“They're the ones that need our help the most,” said Fitzgerald.

He also talked about how deeply other types of typical crime have been buried during the current pandemic.

Domestic abuse and child abuse is a recurring story in town, and the present circumstances make it much harder for the police or other people who serve the public to know when such problems escalate.

“What I am concerned about is the crimes that are not being reported here domestically,” said Fitzgerald.

Students - now studying at home individually instead of together at school - no longer come into person-to-person contact with teachers and other adults who are mandated reporters. By law, such professionals must report suspicion of violent crimes against children.

“A lot of times, the survivor would rely on the abuser going to work, and then they could reach out to someone, and now the abuser is right there 24/7 and the survivor has no mechanism of trying to contact people to get out of that situation,” said Fitzgerald.

“So those are the things first and foremost that we're going to be looking at when we start opening up and we have the ability to cover a lot more,” the chief said.

Recovery, pandemic-style

If the problem of homelessness is temporarily addressed, the challenge of substance abuse continues in Windham County and Brattleboro, even though it may be less visible.

For Susan Walker, the executive director of Turning Point in Brattleboro, one of Vermont's 12 state recovery centers, the COVID-19 crisis has meant a radical shift in how recovery services are delivered.

“As soon as the shutdown came, we got some equipment, did some training, and got on Zoom to provide some kind of recovery support, since we weren't able to so it in person anymore, and the groups couldn't meet,” said Walker.

Walker described a full range of services that Turning Point continues to offer every day through online meetings and one-on-one telephone support.

She also said that as restrictions on physical contact begin to loosen in Vermont in the coming weeks and months, Turning Point's outreach staff may find ways to begin making more direct contact with clients.

“We would like to be able to do one-on-one support, in limited outreach, in a safe, responsible way,” Walker said. “But we do know there are some people who are being overlooked right now.”

Turning Point's services are fully available online, but the close, personal contact that can sometimes be so essential to helping someone move into recovery is simply not available in this time of social distancing.

Walker talked about the strength of Turning Point's staff and how well they are holding up in a time of unprecedented difficulty. She also talked about how hard the work is.

“If you're a coach who's just so passionate about helping people, you're wanting to make these important connections to resources,” Walker said.

“And it's just not possible or you simply can't get anyone on the phone because everyone's understaffed as well,” she continued. “It just can be hard.”

“When I see how devoted our staff are - I'm just holding onto that, that there's a lot of really beautiful, meaningful, essential work being done right now,” said Walker. “And it gives me hope.”

The pandemic has only made such work harder.

But “we have a truly great community that does the right thing, and that has made our jobs easier,” Fitzgerald said.

“Not only do I appreciate how the officers and first responders have addressed this issue and met the challenges head on, but they're really happy to be a part of this community and very proud of this community,” the chief said.

“I just really believe that out of all of this, there are a lot of transformative things that will happen, and I do see signs of that now,” said Walker.

“I see how devoted our staff is, how devoted the emergency staff at [Brattleboro Memorial Hospital] is, and I think our community is just coming together in such an amazing way,” she said.

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