Homeless shelter sees increasing demand

MIDDLEBURY — The Charter House Coalition (CHC) is raising $550,000 for major improvements to its warming shelter at 27 North Pleasant St. that will allow the homeless to better access to beds and food at the Middlebury facility, which is already seeing large numbers of clients.
The campaign is already off to a great start, thanks to the generosity of many Addison County residents. Coalition Co-Directors Doug Sinclair and Samantha Kachmar (pictured, right) last week confirmed $370,000 has been raised toward a final goal that will, among other things, pay for a complete revamp of the shelter’s heating system, installation of a wheelchair lift at one of the exterior entrances to the building, access improvements to individual doorways, and modernization of the nonprofit’s kitchen, where volunteer prepare hundreds of meals each week for those in need.
And the number of those in need continues to grow, according to Sinclair.
Reports this past summer of a person sleeping under Middlebury’s Cross Street Bridge led to the CHC warming shelter opening six weeks earlier than usual, on Sept. 1. The shelter can accommodate up to 44 people, including four families in an upstairs area and more than 20 individuals on the lower level of the 240-year-old old building, which Sinclair noted is constantly in need of TLC. The warming shelter used to be the administrative home base for the nearby Congregational Church of Middlebury, as well as headquarters to Elderly Services Inc.
Elderly Services has long-since settled into a building off Exchange Street and the Congregational Church has ceded the warming shelter to the CHC, which functions as its own nonprofit. The CHC and its 1,200 volunteers last year served more than 35,000 meals, grew 1.5 tons of food in its community gardens, and housed 103 men, women and children in its warming shelter and transitional housing programs.
It is amazing work performed by some amazing people at a time when many people’s economic boat has not been lifted by the stock market and low unemployment.
Low wages are but one reason people find themselves homeless, Kachmar stressed.
“There’s mental illness, traumatic life experiences, substance abuse and domestic/sexual violence,” she said. “There’s generational poverty… It would be such an easy problem to fix if (finances) were the biggest cause.”
Sinclair (pictured, right) said a large percentage of CHC clients are employed, but simply can’t afford their own accommodations.
“There is no affordable housing open; it’s all filled,” Sinclair said. “There are people who have the ability to pay for affordable housing, but it doesn’t exist. If you look at minimum wage and the cost of rent for a small apartment, it doesn’t work. And that’s why we’re here.”
With the mercury plummeting, these are busy times for the CHC.
 “The shelter has grown to a point where it’s become a 24/7 operation,” Sinclair said, noting the organization is not only feeding and housing people, it’s putting them in touch with other service providers to get on a road to self-sufficiency.
Ten people were waiting when the shelter opened in early September. By mid-October, that number had grown to 15. There are now four families with a combined total of 16 people living upstairs, and around 20 individuals grabbing a nightly bed downstairs, according to Kachmar.
Officials know those numbers will only rise as winter gets colder. Kachmar anticipates  the shelter to be full by early December.
“We’re not normally at the level we’re at right now,” she said.
Business is also unfortunately booming at John Graham Housing & Services, which operates an emergency shelter in Vergennes and transitional housing apartment buildings in Middlebury (1), Bristol (1) and the Little City (2). Those transitional units serve a combined total of 53 people.
“All rooms are currently full and we are serving 59 individuals and families at the moment, 17 (of which) are children,” John Graham Housing & Services Co-Directors Peter Kellerman and Kate Schirmer-Smith said through a recent email.
John Graham staff also provide outreach to several families and individuals who have moved onto permanent housing.
“A shortage of shelter space, affordable housing and rental subsidies ensures we will continue to maintain a lengthy wait-list,” Kellerman said. “We are hard-pressed to meet the demand but in no way back down from the challenge. We have a dedicated staff and are proud of the work our team is doing.”
John Graham leaders pointed to three trends they’ve been noticing in recent years: More people are homeless, they’re staying longer and they face greater challenges — from addictions to bad landlord references.
Greater demand has required greater staffing needs for the many Charter House Coalition offerings.
Thankfully, volunteers are able to do most of the heavy lifting, but the organization must have two paid, trained supervisors for each overnight shift at the shelter, according to Sinclair.
The CHC has an annual budget of $300,000. The staff includes two full-time program managers and a third full-timer will soon be needed, Sinclair noted.
Approximately 18 percent ($65,000) of CHC’s funding comes from the state, according to Sinclair. The balance comes through donations and limited grant opportunities.
“As has always happened with this organization, we identify a need and the community has always been able to respond in a way that we can meet the need,” Sinclair said. 
Shelter doors open at 7 p.m., when dinner is served. People have until 10 p.m. to come inside for a spot. Guests may stay until 9:30 a.m. the next morning.
The shelter also offers a “day station” service from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., when human services providers are on hand to counsel people on how to access services to improve their quality of life.
Anyone wanting to help the CHC fund drive or in a volunteer capacity should log on to charterhousecoalition.org.
Also, check out johngrahamshelter.org.
“There’s so much support; it warms our hearts,” Sinclair said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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