Cold weather and snow result in full homeless shelters

MIDDLEBURY — Recent heavy snowfall and consistently frigid temperatures have resulted in Addison County shelters working overtime to make sure the local homeless population stays warm, fed and properly attired to face the worst Mother Nature has to offer.
Leaders of John Graham Housing & Services (JGHS) in Vergennes and the Charter House Coalition in Middlebury confirmed on Thursday that their respective shelters are full — and have been for quite some time, as folks with no other housing options have sought protection from potentially deadly outdoor temperatures.
The Middlebury police blotter has featured multiple entries during the past five weeks of people seeking refuge in area ATM booths and apartment vestibules and hallways.
Peter Kellerman, co-director of JGHS, said the Vergennes shelter took in another six people during the past 10 days.
Available slots are snapped up virtually as soon as they are vacated.
Kellerman is thankful shelters throughout the state have collectively met the winter emergency needs of the homeless population — at least for now.
“The (Vermont) Agency of Human Services has kept community partners informed of statewide emergency warming shelters available in the face of life threatening weather conditions,” Kellerman said. “We refer callers to Economic Services, the Charter House and VT 211 if we can’t accommodate requests for shelter. Statewide, efforts to provide safe haven for those at risk seem to be successful.”
The JGHS Emergency Shelter on Main Street in Vergennes has eight rooms for individuals and families, and can house up to 25 residents at a time. JGHS also owns and operates four apartment buildings in the county that provide transitional housing.
The Charter House Coalition’s Middlebury warming shelter at 27 North Pleasant St. can accommodate up to 22 individuals and several families.
A vast majority of the Middlebury shelter’s guests are Addison County folks, though homeless individuals from other counties are accepted unless capacity has reached 20, according to coalition Co-director Doug Sinclair. At that point, coalition volunteers and staff help out-of-towners find other accommodations, which under some circumstances can include area motel rooms.
Sinclair was pleased to report two shelter families recently transitioned to more permanent housing, so there was an opening for one large family — or two small families — as the Addison Independent went to press.
Officials expect the vacancy to fill very quickly.
“We’ve been maxed out almost since the day we opened,” Sinclair said.
The warming shelter opened to families in mid-October, and welcomed individuals beginning in early September.
Sinclair and his colleagues are conducting a fund drive seeking $42,000, a sum they believe would allow the shelter to remain open year-round.
And a year-round shelter is all the more necessary given the paucity of affordable housing in Addison County, according to local human services providers. The shortage is so acute that those fortunate enough to hold an affordable housing voucher are losing those subsidies by default because they can’t find a qualifying apartments locally, according to Sinclair.
The fair market rent for the average two-bedroom apartment in Addison County is $946, according to statistics provided by JGHS. If a family spends 30-percent of its income on rent, that family would need to earn $3,153 per months or $37,840 each year to keep up with bills.
While the nationwide vacancy rate for apartments hovers around 7 percent, Vermont has a 1 percent vacancy rate, according to JGHS officials.
“After 90 days of (looking for an apartment), they lose the subsidy,” Sinclair said. “The state distributes them where they can actually be used. And because the housing is so short here, we’re losing vouchers that we would normally get to areas where people can get housing.”
Fifty-eight distinct individuals have been served at the warming shelter so far this winter, far more than usual for a typical winter, Sinclair said. Eleven separate families had also used the facility as of last Thursday. This means there’ve been fewer repeat guests this winter, which Sinclair believes is a result of more people finding housing alternatives.
“(Our guests) seem to find a way to join somebody else … and become a partner on the lease,” Sinclair said. “The whole community that works with us is helping people find something that will work. A shelter is a tough place to live, so if for example a person has family in Kansas, we help with transportation to Kansas. Find anything that can help them get to a place here they can have more privacy.”
The coalition’s warming shelter is well-stocked with bedding, linens and most forms of winter clothing — with the exception of men’s and women’s gloves, according to Sinclair.
Homeless clients also need bus tokens for Addison County Transit Resources transportation within the county and to the cities of Rutland and Burlington. Sinclair noted more than half of the shelter’s guests are employed, but not in jobs that can support apartment rent, transportation, food, clothing, utilities and other household expenses.
“People need to take buses to appointments in Burlington… and that takes bus tokens,” Sinclair said.
Shelter guests could also use funds to cover their laundry costs, according to Sinclair. He lamented the loss of the Mountain Fresh Cleaning Laundromat at nearby 10 Washington St., but said guests can make the trek to Desabrais Laundry & Dry Cleaning at 1232 Exchange St.
“Doing laundry can get very expensive,” Sinclair said. “It can add up very quickly. We would love to be able to give laundry vouchers to all of our folks, for hygiene reasons. It’s better for everybody if they can wash their clothes regularly, but it’s a costly thing for them to do.”
While the Charter House Coalition has a robust corps of volunteers, more helpers are needed during late afternoons and early evenings to assist family residents at the shelter, Sinclair said. It’s a time of the day when children are returning from school and could use some adult supervision and mentoring while their parents are still at work.
“We have plenty of kids to interact with and have a good time, and then be there for the dinner meal,” Sinclair said.
The coalition has thus far raised $285,000 toward its goal of $550,000 to improve access, heating system and other upgrades to the historic Charter House.
Anyone wanting to contribute to the coalition’s efforts should email [email protected].
Sinclair and Kellerman both have “can-do” attitudes when it comes to serving the homeless.
And it’s infectious.
“Fortunately, we have such a wonderful dedicated staff, we have been able to manage,” Sinclair said. “I would say we haven’t missed a beat, in spite of the weather, because of the dedication of our volunteers. There’s always someone who says, ‘I can come in and cover.’”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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