Brattleboro faces surge of need for shelter

A math problem: How do you help 250 people who need shelter when you have 234 beds?

BRATTLEBORO — It sounds like a proverbial grade-school math problem: How do you accommodate 250 people with only 234 beds?

It’s a real-life predicament for human service workers here who report options at the local homeless shelter and state-subsidized motel-room program have reached historic highs — yet still aren’t enough.

“Even as the number of shelter beds and motel rooms has increased, the need for these opportunities has grown at a faster rate,” said Jon Hoover, operations director at the Groundworks Collaborative, which helps people who are hungry or need housing.

The nonprofit agency has opened a new downtown headquarters with a 34-bed shelter for people seeking emergency accommodations. It’s operating during a winter in which an additional 200 locals are living in motel rooms funded by government money.

But even with those 234 beds — far more capacity than before the Covid-19 pandemic — an estimated 10 to 15 people still don’t have a place to stay most nights.

That’s leaving residents in this politically progressive town searching for a fix, starting with a recent Selectboard conversation that concluded with more questions than answers.

“The issue just feels essentially overwhelming,” board Chair Ian Goodnow said after an hour and a half of brainstorming. “I find myself trying to focus on the very immediate, and I know that’s not really a solution.”

‘Systemic factors have only intensified’

Residents who see a new, larger Groundworks building and a variety of motels with vacancy signs may not understand the struggle. Human service workers say it’s less about space and more about staffing and other support.

“Immense amounts of human resources are needed to safely run a shelter,” Hoover said. “Our staff is called to work with a complexity of issues in a nonclinical setting 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And the best starting wages we can afford, given the funding we have, is $18 an hour.”

Amid such limits are an increasing number of challenges.

“The systemic factors that contribute to these circumstances have only intensified,” Hoover said, “be it insufficient staffing for mental health services, rampant addiction and, most importantly, limited housing stock.”

Local and state leaders spoke of the need for more permanent housing that would free up temporary space for others. In the meantime, they’re trying to reserve more local motel rooms and seek volunteers to offer rides to lodging in other parts of Vermont.

State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, cautioned that promising to transport people to far-flung places wouldn’t help those whose lives revolve around their town.

“I just want to hope that we all jump to solutions that are meeting the needs of the people who have needs to meet, rather than what feels useful to us in this particular moment,” Kornheiser said.

Added Selectboard member Daniel Quipp: “I’m glad we’re having this conversation, but all of us will go home, presumably, to our relatively warm beds. I want to put it back on the community now and say ‘What do you want to do?’”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates