BRATTLEBORO — After a summer afternoon's torrential downpour, Lisa Marie makes her way gingerly down a slick, muddy trail, through a forested area on the outskirts of town.
The trail leads to a temporary shelter: a big blue tarp anchored to four trees and nailed into the ground. A folding camp chair, a bike, and a quilted cloth sleeping bag, laid out to dry on a log, are the only possessions in sight. Down the hill, three blue tents are pitched among the trees that buffer the landscape from the traffic of Interstate 91.
This is one of six encampments in the area, according to Lisa Marie, who describes herself as "a random homeless" person.
Lisa Marie, who asked that her last name not be published, serves as an informal liaison between Brattleboro's unhoused population and the Homelessness Strategy Team, a group of local organizations and service providers that have been meeting weekly since early May to address the consequences of the end of the pandemic-era motel housing program.
Approximately 800 people statewide lost access to the program on June 1.
The program was originally scheduled to end fully on July 1 for the remaining 2,000 people, who meet eligibility criteria, including families with children, the elderly, domestic abuse survivors, and those on federal disability.
However, with Gov. Phil Scott signing a new bill on June 29, the program has been extended until April 1, 2024.
In the Brattleboro area, 117 families remain housed in six motels, but hundreds of other people have no shelter.
"My guesstimate is that there are about 125 to 150 people camping now, and [that] 75 to 80 people out there need tents," Lisa Marie told members of the Homelessness Strategy Team at a recent meeting.
Some of those camping left the motels on June 1, as they became ineligible for the motel program. Others, according to Lisa Marie, are afraid of the system and therefore don't ask for help.
Measuring the problem
Keeping track of how many people are unsheltered is a difficult task.
"We don't believe we have an accurate count of unsheltered people in Brattleboro," says Peter Elwell, Groundworks Collaborative's interim deputy executive director.
"We know we served 123 people between May 1 and July 2 through a variety of day services, and 52 people have used our overnight shelter between May 2 and June 30, with an average length of stay of 14 nights for overnight services," he added.
And Groundworks case managers, he said, are "supporting dozens of people who are experiencing homelessness or are in precarious housing situations."
According to Elwell, a complete count of those who are unsheltered would have to include dozens of additional unsheltered people who are working with other organizations - such as Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), the Winston Prouty Center, and Pathways Vermont - or who are not currently receiving social services support.
"We and other nonprofit providers across Vermont are working with state officials to develop better ways of tracking and sharing information so that together we can better support unsheltered people and help them move into sustainable housing," Elwell said.
The new emergency housing transition legislation requires the Agency of Human Services to report monthly on a range of data, including the number of households remaining in motels, the number of alternative housing placements made, the number of beds available for emergency housing, and beds available in nursing homes and residential care homes for qualifying individuals.
Every number is a story
Ashleigh and Arnold Lawrence and their four children - ages 4, 5, 9, and 10 - have been living in two rooms at the Quality Inn on Putney Road for over a year. Without a car, Arnold walks to work at a café on Putney Road, and Ashleigh watches the children, one of whom is autistic and "needs a lot of supervision," she said.
"We've been in the motel system for almost two years now," Ashleigh said. "Before coming here, we were at the Econo Lodge, which we found after our rental in Dummerston got condemned."
Asked about their plan, Ashleigh sighed.
"We've filled out all the applications we can. We've used all the resources we know of. But landlords see 'eviction' on our paperwork. They don't see the fact that our landlord didn't fix our electricity for a year, that our house was infested with rats - and they won't rent to us."
Even if they could find a landlord willing to rent to them, Ashleigh said that the cost to rent a three-bedroom unit is out of reach.
"We have a Section 8 housing voucher and can pay 30% of a place that's $1,200 a month, including utilities," Ashleigh said - but it's impossible to find anything.
"With the way Covid's gone, people who have apartments have raised rents so much," she said. "A one-bedroom that should be only $500 is now almost $1,000."
She said that she and Arnold are "doing what we're supposed to do and nothing is happening."
The Lawrences are grateful that the program has been extended, Ashleigh said. "But once it ends, if we don't have a place by then, we have no idea what we're going to do. We don't have family to live with."
Pablo Rodriguez, 62, panhandling at the traffic light at the entrance to the Hannaford shopping plaza on Putney Road, says he and his girlfriend came to Vermont from New York a few years ago.
"And then we ran into some bad luck," he said. "You see the situation we're in now."
Rodriguez, who lives at the Quality Inn on Putney Road, can't work because of chronic pulmonary disease. "I walk a block and I can't breathe," he said. "I'm always coughing and coughing. I wake up like that."
He panhandles to supplement his federal Social Security disability benefits.
"On a good day, I might make $20 out here," he said. "I get money just to eat, buy my dogs food, and go home. I'm not standing here to get rich, I'm just trying to survive."
Some people in Brattleboro persistently claim that the panhandlers are brought in from out of state. What does he make of those stories?
"I have heard people say that," Rodriguez said. "That this is organized. That people come in buses. Not over here at least. [...] You could park out here all day and watch and see that's a lie."
"People can't always assume the money goes for drugs or alcohol," she said. "A lot of the times it goes for prescription co-pay, soap, shampoo, laundry cards, batteries for flashlights the list could go on forever- just like anyone who's housed, the list goes on."
Rodriguez, who claims to know "every single one" of the people who ask for money in public at the strip mall, said that "most of them are from the Quality Inn. Some are homeless."
"I always say 'God Bless' to everybody," Rodriguez said. "I always do, whether they give me anything or not. I try to be nice and stay positive."
It's the law
Elwell - who previously worked as Brattleboro's town manager from 2015 to 2021 - told The Commons that measures to curb or control panhandling could lead to a "slippery slope to try to differentiate between an individual person self-identifying as homeless and hungry, a possibly organized group of people self-identifying as homeless and hungry, and a definitely organized group of people not self-identifying as homeless and hungry (such as a non-profit organization or a school group, for instance)."
"The law equally protects the right of any of these individuals or groups to ask for money in public spaces," he said. "We should be very careful to recognize and respect the protected free speech element of this and not conflate it with other actions that might cause unsafe situations."
In his personal and professional experience "observing how this has evolved over the past decade in Brattleboro, most people who are asking for money in public spaces are doing only that," Elwell said.
"No one should feel compelled to give them money; that is an individual decision. Give if it feels right to you; don't if it doesn't feel right to you," he said.
"But everyone should understand that the people asking for money are not violating the law and that it would be unconstitutional to pass and enforce a law saying otherwise," Elwell said.