Memorial Baptist Church to host new winter shelter

ADDISON COUNTY — We may be going through a heat wave right now, but Addison County’s religious community is already organizing shelter for people who will find themselves homeless this coming winter when this week’s hot and hazy conditions will be a distant memory.
Middlebury Memorial Baptist Church representatives have confirmed plans to offer overnight shelter this winter to homeless people with nowhere else to turn when the thermometer dips below 10 degrees. Church members confirmed the so-called “weather shelter plan” this week, at the same time state officials were discussing potential major cuts to Vermont’s General Assistance Emergency Housing Program, cuts that local human services providers fear could leave many homeless people out in the cold (see related story).
“We decided to step forward,” Memorial Baptist Church parishioner Frank Mazza said of the new winter weather shelter, to be located in the lower level of the church building at 97 South Pleasant St.
“We’re in uncharted territory on this; we’ll be learning as we go along.”
The church is hosting the shelter as part of a broader, ongoing effort to meet the needs of the area’s hungry and/or homeless families. It’s an effort launched several years ago by the Middlebury Community Care Coalition (MCCC), a nonprofit association of church groups and volunteers who have been organizing and hosting free lunches, suppers and shelter for people in need. The coalition operates five fully furnished apartments on North Pleasant Street for people seeking to transition from homelessness to permanent housing. The MCCC also operates the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s Charter House as a temporary winter home for up to five families, from Nov. 1 to May 1 each year.
Doug Sinclair, MCCC president, said the Charter House space rarely has vacancies. And he added it was clear that more could be done for the homeless based on conversations with Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE), the Vermont Department of Children and Families, and local clergy. Together, they mapped out a plan for bare-bones accommodations for people with nowhere else to go during the most frigid of nights.
“All of the social services agencies know there are people out there who do not qualify for help and are spending nights outside, no matter what the weather,” Sinclair said.
These are people who might be suffering with a mental illness or who possess other traits that might disqualify them for a bed at the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes, explained HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross.
“This shelter is intended to be a last resort, with the sole purpose of preventing death due to exposure,” reads a project narrative for the Memorial Baptist Church winter shelter, provided by Montross.
“This shelter facility is intended to serve the chronically homeless, those who have serious mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders, and those with records of violence or criminal activity who are barred from the shelter facilities already in existence in the community.”
People needing to access the shelter will be referred to HOPE, or other organizations as appropriate, for possible follow-up assistance and planning for future shelter. Those trying to access the shelter won’t be required to accept any referral, or engage in case management or other programming with any organization, nor will it be a requirement for anyone accessing the shelter to be “free of the influence of alcohol or any other substance.” But prospective clients will be required to “behave in a manner which is not disruptive to, or does not threaten the safety of, staff or other shelter users.”
The shelter, organizers said, will not continue if it ends up creating “an unnecessary financial or other burden” on the community or starts supplanting existing shelter facilities or programs. The facility will only serve people in Addison County and will not be available to people looking to come in from other areas for the purpose of being sheltered.
Shelter amenities will be basic. The location is wheelchair accessible and contains a number of separate rooms, including a kitchen and bathroom. Women and men will sleep in separate quarters. Clients will be provided mats, blankets and pillows or other head cushioning. Sinclair believes the shelter will be able to serve as many as 12 clients on any given night.
Organizers have secured a $20,000 state grant to launch the shelter, according to Montross. The budget will allow for the hiring of six trained, part-time workers to staff the shelter up to 60 nights between Nov. 1 and May 1, “when the air temperature for the coming night is forecast to be less than 10 degrees and on other nights when wind chill or precipitation conditions warrant,” according to the project narrative.
Paid staff will be trained in such areas as “personal and professional boundaries,” communication, substance abuse disorders, major mental illnesses, confidentiality and ethics. Staff will be employed by, and will answer to, the MCCC.
Other rules call for the shelter to only open to a client if he or she cannot get a room at the John Graham Shelter or another viable option. The shelter will not be opened if a single individual needs it for the night; in such a circumstance, HOPE would seek resources to put that person up at a motel room for the night using Salvation Army, grant, or private funds. If two or more qualifying people need the shelter, it will be opened, after 7 p.m. Volunteers will help with the intake of clients, who will be able to enter between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Paid staff will come on at 8 p.m. and supervise the shelter through the night. Lights will be turned off at 10 p.m., with clients being woken up at 7 a.m. The shelter will provide some evening snacks and a light breakfast in the morning.
Clients will have to leave the shelter by 8 a.m., whereupon volunteers will clean the shelter and get it ready for the next time it opens. HOPE has shower facilities for clients who want to use them.
Organizers will carefully monitor the facility during its first winter to see if it can become a long-term service.
“This only works because of the spirit in this community of neighbor helping neighbor,” Sinclair said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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