Winter homeless shelter closing out helpful season with plans for the future

MIDDLEBURY — The Charter House Coalition (CHC) this week will wrap up another season of its heavily used Middlebury warming shelter, and will now turn its attention to improving the interior of its facility at 27 North Pleasant St. in order to better serve homeless individuals and families during the coming years.
Established in 2005, the CHC is a nonprofit association of local religious groups and individuals who each year donate hundreds of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars to make sure the less fortunate have access to basic necessities.
The group organizes free community meals throughout the year and has, for the past five winters, operated a warming shelter in the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s Charter House.
This was the first winter during which the CHC operated a “day station” at the seasonal shelter that can handle up to 14 individuals and four families at a time. The day station links homeless people with other local nonprofits to help them look for jobs, permanent housing and other services.
Doug Sinclair, executive director of the CHC, said the shelter this past winter served 80 people, including nine families. The Charter House maintains separate quarters for individuals and families.
“A large part of the time, we were full,” Sinclair said. “We were basically at capacity for most of the winter.”
Around one-third of the shelter clients stayed less than 10 days. The balance of the clients could be classified as “regulars,” with stays of 80 or more days, according to Sinclair. Some or those regulars were in their second or third winter at the CHC shelter.
“Many have challenges that make it difficult (for them to be employed),” Sinclair said of the shelter regulars.
Fortunately, the day station has helped whittle down the number of regulars through placements in permanent housing. Last year, the CHC helped several of the seven families it served get into stable housing. This year, in large part thanks to the day station efforts, the CHC helped secure stable housing for seven of the nine families that spent time at the warming shelter.
Sinclair said it’s harder to find permanent housing for individuals. Thus far, the CHC has helped find homes for around 40 percent of the individuals served this year at the warming shelter.
Several shelter clients were also able to find jobs, thanks to the extra assistance. Some are working in food service at Middlebury College, and others are employed at area grocery stores. One person was pleased to find a job on an Addison County farm, where he was also provided housing.
“We’re so happy about how the day station went,” Sinclair said.
Original plans called for the day station to close in April, just like the warming shelter. But CHC officials decided to keep it running year-round due to its proven success: It will remain open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., during the coming months. Those who use the day station on a Monday through Thursday will also be able to grab a free meal at CHC’s community lunches.
“(The lunches) will get folks here, and then we can provide services before and after lunch through the day station,” Sinclair said.
Food has become an important magnet for CHC programs. The organization currently prepares around 22,000 free meals per year in what is essentially a household kitchen in the Charter House.
“Our annual budget has grown 10 percent to 15 percent for years,” Sinclair said.
And the CHC’s budget will need to grow by an even larger percentage this year, because the organization will soon take over the entire Charter House.
Because the Congregational Church will be moving its administrative offices from the front of the Charter House to an addition across the street, the CHC will be able to expand its programming. And the nonprofit will soon renovate the Charter House to provide for a bigger kitchen and more space for the warming shelter and day station.
Sinclair believes the facility, once renovated, will be able to accommodate up to five families and 20 individuals.
“We are working hard to find funding to increase that space and modernize it,” Sinclair said.
Officials will launch a “Charter House Challenge II” in July, when volunteers will help renovate the interior of the building and nearby transitional apartments the CHC operates at 39 North Pleasant St. Work is expected to wrap up in mid-October.
“Being realistic, it will probably cost $100,000, by the time all is said and done,” Sinclair said of the new project. “We will do as much work as we can with the resources that are provided.”
Organizers are looking for grants and they are planning fund-raising activities.
The CHC will gratefully accept any cash donations, along with contributions of major kitchen appliances, such as a commercial-sized oven, stove and refrigerator. Sturdy chairs and cabinets are also needed.
Being able to serve more people is becoming even more important given the potential of waning state and federal dollars for human services programs, according to CHC officials. Sinclair said he recently heard news of potential state budget cuts that could reduce number of motel vouchers for homeless people during the coldest nights of the year.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said the House-passed version of the state budget maintains the motel voucher program and “moves dollars to support (Montpelier and Rutland) so they can join the balance of Vermont in assisting homeless citizens with the best possible supports.” Montpelier and Rutland have seen some of the highest uses of motel vouchers, and the state would prefer to invest in more cost-effective programs that help lift people out of homelessness, Lanpher noted.
The CHCs warming shelter fits that profile, and it is lifting the spirits of many of its clients along the way.
“This year has been rewarding in a number of ways,” said Samantha Kachmar, associate director of CHC’s housing programs. “The day station has allowed more mentoring of our guests by volunteers and staff. The guests were able to form relationships (with each other); coming from a lot of the situations they come from, they don’t always have that feeling of fellowship.”
Vicky Wideman, associate director of CHC’s food programs, said the warming shelter has become an important part of many people’s lives. She spoke recently with a visitor who was lamenting the closure of the shelter for the season. Wideman reassured him he can remain a part of the community through the summer and fall by participating in the day station and meal programs.
“He is part of the Charter House family now,” Wideman said. “It’s not just the help with jobs. It’s the social connection. He needs that continuity of social relationships, because that’s lacking outside of Charter House.”
Sinclair has seen many positive changes the warming shelter experience has made in visitors’ lives.
“When someone is suffering from addiction problems and gets into a structured situation like we can provide, and then they are able to move forward and get a job and (recover) from where they were, that’s very meaningful,” Sinclair said. “Part of the reason our numbers have been higher is because of drug and alcohol addiction. We have people of all ages with those problems. And we are seeing more seniors than we have ever seen before. As the baby boomers reach retirement age and don’t have the resources, we’re seeing more and more of them.”
One woman who used the warming shelter this year wrote a letter of gratitude to the CHC.
“When I am back on my feet this will definitely be a place I will give back to,” she wrote. “Lord knows every person here has helped us above and beyond our expectations and continue to do so every day. Charter House has been a blessing to me and I will always be truly grateful for the experience.”
People wanting to learn more about the CHC can log onto charterhousecoalition.org. Those considering a donation to CHC programs can email Kachmar at [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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