A birdhouse sits across the street from the nonprofit Groundworks Collaborative’s drop-in center and overnight shelter on South Main Street in Brattleboro.
Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger.org
A birdhouse sits across the street from the nonprofit Groundworks Collaborative’s drop-in center and overnight shelter on South Main Street in Brattleboro.

A year after tragedy, Groundworks looks forward

‘We’ve learned we cannot be all things to all people,’ says Libby Bennett, the nonprofit’s new leader. ‘The needs have grown a lot more complex.’

BRATTLEBORO-Five years ago, Groundworks Collaborative - a nonprofit whose tagline promises "basic needs met with dignity" - hoped to help a rising number of people sleeping on the streets by unveiling plans for a $3.3 million drop-in center and overnight shelter.

"Thinking back to that moment, we thought, 'This is the way,'" Libby Bennett, then in charge of the organization's development and communications office, recalled of the overall trajectory.

No one foresaw the seismic shift that would come with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the expansion of the state's emergency housing voucher program, or the killing of Leah Rosin-Pritchard, a Groundworks social worker, on April 3, 2023, allegedly by a resident of its longer-stay Morningside House.

On the first anniversary of the death, the $3.3 million facility is open, but the separate 30-bed Morningside House remains closed as new leadership works on a blueprint for the future.

"We want to be the best support we can, but we've learned we cannot be all things to all people," said Bennett, who was recently promoted to the post of executive director. "The needs have grown a lot more complex."

Groundworks' challenge, she knows, mirrors that of similar organizations statewide.

Back in 2011, when Bennett was a graduate student, her volunteer work at Brattleboro's former shelter in the First Baptist Church centered on helping people who slept on the floor there. At the time, the biggest struggle was the fact the religious congregation was shrinking to the point it had to sell the building in 2019.

More need than ever

Much has changed since Bennett joined the agency in 2012. She helped with a merger that placed all of the area's food and housing programs under the Groundworks umbrella in 2015 and celebrated the opening of its $3.3 million facility with 34 overnight beds and daytime restrooms, showers, washers, dryers and storage lockers in 2021.

Just before Covid, some 98 people were reported to be without housing in the Brattleboro area, according to a 2019 count. After the arrival of the pandemic, that number tripled to 329 in the most recent tally.

"Once, we had a lot of people who struggled with alcohol," Bennett said. "Now, we have a lot of people who struggle with other substance use disorders."

Groundworks has also encountered more clients with mental health issues. The state is hospitalizing the resident charged with last year's Morningside House killing until at least August after ruling the accused to be incompetent to stand trial, according to court records.

Following last year's death, Groundworks enlisted other providers to temporarily oversee all of its services while the agency's 45 employees grieved and regrouped.

"We have learned how to ask for help," Bennett said. "We don't have the capacity to do it all."

Upon returning to operation, the agency then strengthened its rules against threatening behavior.

"We need to consider our own boundaries around increasing safety and reducing risks," Bennett said. "We all understand we're upholding these out of respect for each other."

'There are not enough places for people'

Groundworks is facing other issues, starting with inflation. Its food shelf rescues an estimated $500,000 of expiring supermarket staples every year. But demand has skyrocketed by up to 100 new households a month, its records show.

The lack of affordable housing is an even larger problem. A recent municipally sponsored Housing Action Plan found an immediate need for more than 500 units in town.

"The perfect metaphor for this is a game of musical chairs," Bennett said. "There are not enough places for people."

Groundworks is talking with neighbors about its hopes to raze and replace Morningside House, although the agency has yet to announce specific plans.

"We're waiting on some major funding decisions," Bennett said, "but are meticulously designing a brand-new program to bring back beds and services."

The executive director was one of 150 people who attended a recent Brattleboro screening of Vermont filmmaker Bess O'Brien's new documentary Just Getting By.

Bennett nodded knowingly during its depiction of social workers fighting poverty on the frontlines - all while the state and federal government cuts pandemic-era funding.

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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