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Local groups join to help homeless at sleep-out

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Posted on November 26, 2014 |
By John Flowers



ADDISON COUNTY — It is not unusual for people to stop at Middlebury’s Otter Creek Falls and linger for a while to drink in its scenic beauty.

But on Saturday, Dec. 6, dozens of people will camp overnight at the falls during what promises to be very cold temperatures with no daylight to appreciate the natural wonders of their setting. And that’s quite appropriate, as the communal slumber party will be anything but a party; it’s a sleep-out aimed at bringing attention to homelessness in Addison County and to raise money for those looking for a place to live.

“It’ll be freezing, but only for one night,” said 14-year-old Saskia Kiely, a Vergennes Union High School student who with her family will be participating in the sleep-out. “For me, it will only be for one night and I’ll be able to go home in the morning. Many other people won’t be able to do that.”

Middlebury has a new location for its warming shelter. See that story here.

The sleep-out is but one strategy local human service agencies are employing to end homelessness in Addison County amid some dismaying trends. Elizabeth Ready, director of the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes, noted that:

•  Homelessness is increasing in Addison County and Vermont, especially among families with children. Vermont is one of five states where the number of homeless people has grown fastest, by 51 percent between 2007-2014, according to federal Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics. The number of homeless people in Vermont was placed at 1,035 in 2007, and 1,559 this year, according to HUD.

“The problem is especially acute among families with children, many of whom face mental illness, addictions, health issues as well as financial difficulty,” Ready said.

•  Despite the cold weather, people are still outside in Addison County and at tremendous risk for harm or even death, according to Ready. The shelter and other partner agencies have identified more than a dozen people still living outdoors in cars, tents or “other substandard places,” according to Ready. This is occurring in spite of the fact that the Vergennes shelter has four buildings full of families and individuals, and dozens of others being supported at scattered sites.

“We plan to bring them in, one at a time,” Ready said of the homeless population.

And local officials have joined the national “100,000 Homes Campaign” in an effort to identify and house those in need. The campaign calls for uniting housing providers, advocates and other community leaders to “perpetually house 100,000 of our most vulnerable and chronically homeless neighbors,” according to the campaign’s manifesto. “In the process, we are transforming the way our communities respond to homelessness and ensuring a lifetime on the streets will be unheard of and unimaginable to our children.”

It was on Oct. 29 that local supporters of the 100,000 Homes Campaign first met to discuss strategy. It’s a strategy that includes placing a premium on finding local housing for those in need; generating a by-name, prioritized list of homeless individuals and families in the community; making housing and other resource decisions on the community level, not the individual agency level; and using data to drive all decisions.

The local shelter and its partner agencies are combing the community to find those who are homeless and ask them questions to determine how dire their circumstances are, in order to prioritize services. The questionnaire provided through 100,000 Homes, includes some of the following inquiries:

•  Name, age and individual history of homelessness.

•  How many times the client has visited a hospital emergency department, sought our services and had interaction with police during the previous six months.

•  Whether the client has engaged in prostitution or traded needles in the use of drugs.

•  Whether the person is employed and what kind of income they might have.

•  A run-down of the client’s illness history, including whether they face any life-threatening maladies.

•  Whether the person has a history of mental illness and has attempted suicide.

It is through this kind of triage that local officials hope to get the most vulnerable off the streets first, and ultimately accommodate everyone who doesn’t have a roof over their head during the coming winter months.

The shelter’s allies on the homelessness front include the Parent-Child Center of Addison County, the Counseling Service of Addison County, Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, the Charter House Coalition and the United Way. They interact and strategize regularly as part of a group called “Housing Solutions.”

“Our common goal is to bring in chronically homeless people in from the outside,” Ready said.

UNAFFORDABLE RENTS

Many members of Housing Solutions will be participating in the Dec. 6 sleep-out. There are other folks, like Vergennes  book editor Rux Martin, who will be setting up tents at the falls to help a cause near and dear to their hearts.

Martin became inspired to help after seeing the plight of a former neighbor who essentially became homeless when her landlord decided to sell the residence in which she was living. The woman, in her late 50s, was working at a supermarket at the time and could not afford market-rate rents.

“She could find nothing she could afford, even as far down as Addison,” recalled Martin, who briefly took in the woman until she was able to find another single person with whom to split the rent of an apartment.

It’s an issue that also struck close to home for the Martin family. She noted her own son, a busy restaurant chef, recently took ill and had to be hospitalized. He and his wife suddenly could not pay their bills. Martin was glad to help them out financially, but absent her help, she believes her son’s family might have joined the ranks of the homeless.

“If you don’t have a family support network, you could end up on the street,” Martin said. “And no matter who you are, you don’t deserve to be freezing on the street.”

Martin’s employer, the publishing company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has agreed to match donations that she raises for the sleep-out. As of Tuesday, sleep-out participants had gathered a combined total of $19,661 in pledges.

Diane Lanpher is grateful for her nice Vergennes home. Lanpher, a state representative, said she realizes that many others aren’t so lucky as her, so she and her son Christopher Cousineau, a teacher at Mount Abraham Union High School and member of the VUHS board, will be participating in the sleep-out.

Homelessness, Lanpher noted, is an issue that is often intertwined with other troubles and afflictions, such as substance abuse, domestic violence and mental illness. These are all topics that the Vermont General Assembly deals with regularly in Montpelier.

“It’s about adding some solidarity for (the homeless); it makes staying out in the cold for one night worth it,” Lanpher said. “I am honored that (organizers) would ask me to help in this capacity.”

More information about the Dec. 6 sleep-out can be found at www.classy.org/sleepout. The event will begin at 4 p.m. with a candlelight vigil on the Middlebury Green. Participants are encouraged to bring a bag of food, box of diapers, toiletries, hygiene products, cleaning supplies or bedding to help struggling families move into new homes. The sleep-out at the falls will ensue.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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