Middlebury’s cold-weather homeless shelter to open early
MIDDLEBURY — As homelessness becomes more visible downtown and more of a concern, Middlebury’s homeless shelter, the Charter House, will open six weeks early this year.
Doug Sinclair, co-executive director of the Charter House Coalition, said that in spite of uncertain funding the shelter on North Pleasant Street would open its doors on Sept. 1 this year rather than operating from mid-October to April as it has in prior years.
“We hope this initiative will foster continued community discussion so that none of our neighbors will have to sleep under a bridge, on someone’s porch or under someone’s deck next summer,” Sinclair said.
It is a move that comes in response to increased visibility of homeless people in the area.
In June 2017, Molly Saunders set up a GoFundMe page on the Internet to collect donations for the homeless in Vermont.
“I saw a homeless man in Burlington with a sign asking for clean socks and it broke my heart,” she said. “I started collecting donations, and I put together 75 care packages. In each I included a handwritten note of encouragement, a list of resources, lots of hygiene items, socks, a blanket, a flashlight, and other things.”
Ironically, several months later Saunders, 27, a graduate of St. Michael’s College, found herself living out of her car.
Today she is in a better place. Thanks to Counseling Service of Addison County and Shelter Plus Care, a program of the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development that serves homeless individuals with disabling conditions, she has her own apartment in Addison County, where she is once again able to take care of her cat, Marshmallow.
So it was with a great deal of life experience that last week Saunders contributed to a spirited discussion about homelessness on an online forum.
“Stigma can make it scary to be open about struggles like these, but by sharing we slowly strip away the shame,” she wrote.
The forum discussion began when a county resident asked why police were not looking into the issue of people sleeping under the Cross Street Bridge in Middlebury. The volume and intensity of the responses caught the attention of several town officials, including selectboard member Laura Asermily, Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay and Police Chief Tom Hanley.
Whether or not increased visibility means increased numbers is unclear.
The Point in Time Count Report, Vermont’s annual statewide one-day count of the homeless, found the state’s homeless population to be 1,291 on a single night in January of 2018. That was up slightly from 1,225 in 2017, and from 1,102 in 2016, but well below the five-year average of 1,350. Addison County ranked in the middle of counties statewide, with 98.
Regardless of the numbers or what they might mean, the Charter House Coalition in Middlebury this year decided to expand its services.
The move will require three things, Sinclair wrote in an Aug. 10 announcement: more volunteers, more paid overnight staff and more financial support.
It was a decision the Charter House has always wanted to make, Sinclair and co-director Samantha Kachmar told the Independent. But the funding has never been there. They estimated it will cost roughly $12,000 to run the overnight shelter an additional six weeks. To keep it open year-round, Charter House would need $70,000 in additional annual revenue.
“There will be a financial risk to opening early,” Sinclair said. “We’re jumping in and then will ask for resources from the community. The community is the reason we exist, and the community will determine if we stay open year-round.”
The decision comes on the heels of some major changes at Charter House.
Recent kitchen renovations will make it easier to prepare and serve the shelter’s free daily meals (in 2017 they served more than 30,000). And in July the organization took ownership of its building across the street from the Congregational Church of Middlebury.
But these improvements — and future repairs — require significant funding over and above their annual operating expenses. The Charter House has identified roughly $550,000 worth of improvements the 230-year-old building will need over the next three years. Its “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” funding campaign has raised $225,000 so far, but there is still a long way to go.
In the winter, Charter House operates two separate shelters in their building at 27 North Pleasant St. The upstairs is reserved exclusively for families. The ground floor is available for individuals. On any given night it can house up to five families, plus 20 individuals simultaneously.
This year’s early opening, which will focus on providing shelter for individuals, is a trial run with modified hours, Sinclair said. Guests may stay in the shelter from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m., but the winter meal service (supper and breakfast) will not begin until Oct. 15.
If all goes well the Charter House may attempt to stay open beyond April of next year.
“When we open on Sept. 1, we hope we will never close again,” Sinclair said.
But it’s difficult to help everyone.
In January, Suad Teocanin, 45, a regular guest at the shelter, died of hypothermia on the town green, the result of a “high degree of intoxication,” according to Middlebury police.
And it’s impossible for the Charter House to help those who can’t — or won’t — use their services.
According to a one-day count conducted in January 2016 by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness, approximately 11 percent of the state’s homeless population was unsheltered, many of whom suffer from disabilities such as severe mental illness or Substance Use Disorder.
“It’s not just about housing,” said Jeanne Montross, executive director of Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE). “Yes, people need affordable housing. Yes, they need to earn more money. But we need to look at the more complex issues: substance abuse, mental illness, trauma and abuse. There is a broad spectrum of issues.”
HOPE often sends ambassadors into the community to let people know about the help and services it offers, which include financial assistance with housing and utilities; nutritious food; assistance to homeless people, including camping gear and emergency hotel rooms; budget counseling; and job-related assistance.
The best way for the community to begin to help the homeless is to assume nothing, Montross said.
“Learn about the homeless. Respect them. Smile at them. Don’t assume you know what they need.”
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley agrees.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to this issue,” he told the town in a memo. People are often in distress, and mental health issues make shelter life difficult.
But contrary to some residents’ perceptions, the police are looking into it.
“We have received a number of calls of concern from people who won’t use the town parks or trails because of what they perceive as an intimidating presence of ‘squatters,’” Hanley wrote in the memo. “The First Baptist Church has been especially fouled with waste and debris.”
Though worries about predators and violence are always a concern, no specific crimes have been attributed to homeless people in the Middlebury area, Hanley said. But they do inspire a lot of “nuisance calls.” Some complainants have referred to homeless individuals as “trash.”
The Middlebury police will enforce park closing times and will ask campers to move along, but it’s not illegal to sleep under the Cross Street Bridge (though “trashing it” is).
WANT TO HELP
More than anything, the police want to help, which is something Saunders experienced first-hand.
“Several times last winter, the police stopped and asked if I was OK, and even offered to let me sleep at their station,” she wrote on the online forum. “To say the Middlebury Police Department doesn’t care just isn’t true. Most of them are very kind. They want to help, but there is only so much they can do.”
Because of debilitating anxiety, Saunders found it impossible to cope with the stress of staying at shelters like the Charter House, which is why she chose, reluctantly, to sleep in her car.
She didn’t tell anyone about it, though.
“I was ashamed,” she said.
In the depth of winter, as nighttime temperatures plunged below zero, Saunders would wake up in one parking lot or another, freezing. Often she would drive around at night so she could keep the heat running and stay warm.
“Sometimes I would just drive to Burlington and back,” she said. “But I would be exhausted and would worry about getting into an accident.”
Then in February it happened. Saunders rear-ended the vehicle in front of her and her car was totaled.
At that point she felt like she had nowhere left to go.
One night, desperate to escape frigid weather, Saunders sheltered in the National Bank of Middlebury’s ATM vestibule on Main Street.
“It was incredibly scary,” she recalled. The stress of being homeless was all consuming. “I thought it would go on forever.”
Now that she has begun to put her life back together, however, she is eager to help others in need.
“If any sort of project is started by members of the community, I would love to be a part of it,” she wrote.
In addition to the Charter House in Middlebury, the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes and HOPE, a program of the United Way of Vermont, are also there to help.
By dialing 2-1-1, people struggling to find a place to live can get information on rental assistance, emergency housing, food resources, utility assistance and medical resources, said 2-1-1’s director, MaryEllen Mendl. All calls are private and confidential.
In 2017, homeless intake for emergency housing was among 2-1-1’s top five referred services for Addison County.
Those seeking assistance or looking for ways to help are encouraged to contact these and other local organizations.
To help the Charter House reach its goal, through donations or volunteering, contact Samantha Kachmar at [email protected].
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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