Organizers of Homelessness Awareness Day in Brattleboro on Jan. 18 planted 648 small flags on the lawn of the Municipal Center as a visual reminder of the extent of the need for housing and related services in Windham County.
Elizabeth Ungerleider/Special to The Commons
Organizers of Homelessness Awareness Day in Brattleboro on Jan. 18 planted 648 small flags on the lawn of the Municipal Center as a visual reminder of the extent of the need for housing and related services in Windham County.

‘Homelessness is not acceptable. It is a crisis. It is a tragedy. And it is preventable.’

Vermonters in Brattleboro and throughout the state acknowledge those without homes — and grieve those who died in 2023

On a 25-degree afternoon, about 60 people - some without hats, gloves, or boots - held a candlelight vigil in Pliny Park to acknowledge and grieve the 19 unhoused local people who died last year.

It was Homelessness Awareness Day on Jan. 18, and Vermonters across the state were renewing their commitment to end homelessness.

"In 2023 almost 8,000 Vermonters experienced homelessness, including 2,000 children," event organizer Fred Breunig told the gathering. "Over the past year, local service providers supported 648 people experiencing homelessness, including 140 children and 42 people over the age of 65."

"Homelessness is not acceptable," said Breunig, a member of the Housing Coalition of Southeast Vermont, an organization focusing on housing and homelessness in the region. "It is a crisis. It is a tragedy. And it is preventable."

Event organizers planted 648 small flags on the lawn of the Municipal Center as a visual reminder of the extent of the need for housing and related services.

"As you contemplate the display, please remember that each flag represents a person with a face and a name," Breunig said. "They each have a story, and hopes and fears, sadness and discouragements."

'I'm not sleeping on a bench tonight'

Lisa Marie, a homeless advocate, told a bit of her story to the crowd.

"I have been homeless for almost 2{1/2} years," she said. "I'm lucky because I get to live in a hotel. The hotels are not awesome. But every day, I have to keep reminding myself. No matter how scary it is, how dangerous, it's a roof over my head. And I am not sleeping on a bench tonight."

Vermont is a "shelter first" state, which means that people experiencing homelessness must first attempt to access local shelters before applying for the state's emergency motel program.

Groundworks Collaborative, which runs a 34-bed shelter in Brattleboro, has been "at capacity" with about a five-person wait list each night, according to Groundworks' Director of Shelters Karli Schrade, who said that she could think of at least 10 to 15 people who sometimes sleep outside.

Schrade noted that it is difficult to identify unsheltered people who may not want to be seen. "We're not entirely sure how many people are unsheltered," she said.

All but one region of the state have described availability in hotels as either "none" or "extremely limited" as of Jan. 18, according to the Department of Children and Families' Economic Services Division, which runs the motel program.

As of Dec. 26, 206 households were sheltering in Brattleboro-area motels.

Small gestures help

"What sucks is there's a lot of hate towards us," said Lisa Marie at the vigil. "And what people don't understand is that it could be you tomorrow. It could be your brother, your sister, your daughter, a cousin, a next-door neighbor."

Even small gestures can have impact, she said.

"Any little thing, whether it's a smile, a 'hello, how are you doing?' can keep somebody alive for that day," Lisa Marie said. "Even if it's a cup of coffee on a frigid day. You don't have to give money. Give a laundry card, a blanket, mittens, just a conversation."

"A lot of my friends have died this year," she said. "Most all of them could have been prevented."

Kenny G., a local "street minister," spoke at the vigil about his many friends who have died from overdoses.

"I carry four Narcan [an over-the-counter opioid overdose treatment] with me at all times," he said. "It's not difficult to obtain. It's easy to use, and you're not going to get sued for using it. You'll save someone's life."

Schrade said that local service providers identified 19 unhoused people who died this year. However, because not all unhoused people access services, she believes that it is likely that more than 19 people experiencing homelessness died in the region last year.

And it is also impossible to generalize the extent to which homelessness can be blamed for their demise, though it can't help but be a contributing factor in a lot of cases.

"A lot of the causes [of death] are unknown to us," Schrade said. "We support a lot of people who are navigating really complex medical needs, and their ability to maintain interventions for their health is certainly significantly less [than others' ability] because of systemic barriers."

Connecting where people feel the most comfortable

In February, Groundworks will launch an outreach program to provide community-based services specifically for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

"Our 4{1/2}-person team will be out connecting with people where they feel most comfortable," Schrade said. "If people are ready to access support for substance use treatment or mental health treatment or health care, then we will support them in doing that. But if they're not interested in any of that, then we will find things that they have needs for and we will support them."

Schrade has worked at Groundworks for six years and described it as "an experience unlike any experience I've ever had."

"The drop-in center is a very, very special place," she said. "There's this appreciation for us showing up and for being consistent and for being genuine and for asking questions and being curious and really seeing people as people experiencing homelessness, not homeless people."

Housing is the issue right now

"There's a lot of anger and frustration directed towards individuals," said Josh Davis, executive director of Southeast Vermont Community Action and former executive director of Groundworks, in an interview with The Commons.

"When folks see people on the street asking for money or camping in the woods, the focus becomes about the people as opposed to the system that creates the conditions that folks without housing experience," Davis said.

"It's not about fixing people without housing," he added. "It's about fixing the system around housing."

Davis said that "time and again, when we direct resources where they're needed most, it makes a huge impact and a huge difference."

Describing homelessness as "a policy choice," he said that to "really turn the tide on homelessness, it takes political will and it takes action in places like the Statehouse."

But Davis spoke hopefully.

"I'm seeing housing at the forefront of so many discussions now," he said. "People really get the housing crunch that we're in. We're seeing policy action being directed toward housing, we're seeing resources being allocated for housing. And that goes across the board, not just for folks experiencing homelessness, but housing in general, across all incomes in the state."

"It feels like housing is the issue right now. And rightfully so," Davis said.

This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.

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