Warming shelter caps sucessful first winter

MIDDLEBURY — Organizers of the warming shelter at Middlebury’s Memorial Baptist Church termed the facility’s first season a solid success, with service provided to 32 homeless people who received a combined total of more than 450 bed nights during what was one of the coldest Vermont winters in recent memory.
“It went incredibly well, considering it was the first time (it was offered),” said Doug Sinclair, leader of the Charter House Coalition board, which helped organize the warming shelter program in concert with Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE). HOPE developed the idea and sought funding to make it happen.
The shelter was open to anyone without a warm place to stay during the coldest nights. Clients included those suffering with mental health problems and drug addiction, issues that excluded them from admission to conventional homeless shelters.
“It was a very good experience,” Sinclair added. “Were there challenges at times? Yes. But everyone was cooperative and it worked out well.”
HOPE successfully applied for a $20,000 state grant to help fund the warming shelter in space graciously offered by the Memorial Baptist Church on South Pleasant Street. Expenses included wages for two part-time professionals who staffed the shelter with the help of volunteers sourced through the Charter House Coalition. The coalition is a very successful nonprofit made up of Middlebury-area clergy and some 750 helpers from all walks of life who provide free meals, housing and other services to those in need. The main goal of the shelter was to make sure homeless people did not freeze to death at night.
The shelter opened in mid-November and closed at the end of last month. While initial plans were to open the shelter only on the coldest nights, organizers made the decision to keep the facility open every night from mid-January on. The weather was such that it didn’t make sense to close the shelter for random nights when the nighttime temperature did not happen to plunge into single digits, Sinclair said.
“It did cause us to greatly exceed the (shelter budget),” Sinclair noted of the extra shelter nights.
Thankfully, the United Way of Addison County and some other groups pitched in to balance the books on a service that ended up costing around $30,000, officials said.
And those who used the shelter left with more than a fitful sleep.
What began as evening and morning snacks evolved into full-fledged dinners and breakfasts, where shelter workers and clients were able to gather and share stories. Rules called for clients to leave the shelter by 8 a.m., but they were given information on other warm places as well as access to free Middlebury lunches/and or grocery store gift cards. People in need of counseling and other services were put in contact with the appropriate local professionals.
“We were able to keep our eyes on folks and start those (client/provider) relationships,” said Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE.
“It was a positive experience and went well beyond just providing a place to sleep.”
Frank Mazza was one of the primary coordinators of the warming shelter. He was pleased with how the program functioned and said it also served as a learning experience for many of those involved. Clients owed their respective plights to various circumstances, he noted, ranging from just being “down on their luck” to mental health challenges. Some were relatively introverted, while others showed compassion for one another, he recalled. The shelter accommodated as many as a dozen homeless people on some nights.
While some clients posed challenges due to drug or alcohol addiction or other health issues, Mazza said things generally ran quite well. Those running the shelter often found that their charges would be ready to settle down for sleep after eating supper at 8 p.m.
“It’s exhausting being homeless,” said Mazza, a former Vermont human services official.
Mazza said he and other volunteers found it very rewarding to offer the service.
“It’s part of the fabric of a community to want to take care of one another,” Mazza said. “There are so many lonely people out there. Giving them dignity and care was so important.”
Officials at HOPE and the Charter House Coalition are now looking at the prospect of again offering the warming shelter next winter. It’s a service they are convinced is needed and is saving the state resources. They noted the state would otherwise be spending $65 per bed night to put these same clients up in motels.
“It’s definitely needed,” Montross said.
Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes, agreed.
“We were fortunate to have the warming shelter right in downtown Middlebury, especially during such a bitter, long winter,” Ready said. “At the John Graham Shelter, our four buildings were packed to overflowing with families and children and other vulnerable people. We were not always able to safely shelter everyone under the same roof, especially if people were actively drinking or using. Yet each person deserves shelter and care. So we are grateful to Frank (Mazza) and Doug (Sinclair) and everyone who stepped up. It was a good community effort.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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