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Nonprofits devise plan to assist the homeless

MIDDLEBURY — A coalition of Addison County nonprofits is looking for around 2 acres of available land near downtown Middlebury on which to establish 10-15 dwellings for homeless people through a concept known as “Middlebury Shares,” which would invite area nonprofits and businesses to sponsor individual units.
The overarching goal, according to a game plan drafted by participating agencies:
“Address unmet need for small, inexpensive housing units primarily for individuals with barriers to housing access, including lack of income and negative housing history.”
Ingrid Pixley, a resident service coordinator with the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC), is also an organizer of Middlebury Shares. Folks with mental health challenges are among those having a tough time finding permanent housing.
“We don’t have enough affordable housing in Addison County,” Pixley lamented.
Local human services officials last fall identified 49 households seeking permanent accommodation — including 34 individuals, nine couples, and five families — according to the Addison County Continuum of Care, a local group dedicated to ending homelessness. Of the 49, fourteen were chronically homeless, at least 18 met the federal Housing and Urban Development definition of homeless, and 38 required long-term assistance to be stably housed.
Chronically homeless people are often unable to secure affordable housing due to a shortage of subsidies and/or because of a past tenant history that can scare off landlords with limited apartment vacancies, officials said.
“Permanent housing resources are leaving a significant number of housing applicants out in the cold,” reads a summary of the Middlebury Shares program drafted by the Continuum of Care group. “Poor payment history is the most common denial reason, along with poor or unverifiable landlord references. One in seven applicants was denied for property damage or disruptive behavior.”
Continuum of Care members said they believe the county needs to deeply subsidize a housing option, along with providing supports that would help those residents comply with the terms of their lease. With that in mind, Middlebury Shares seeks to build or renovate around a dozen small efficiency units in which tenants could reside and receive services to help them live independently, learn tenancy skills, and connect with other community-based programs. The design would feature a community space in which tenants could receive services.
Since organizers aren’t banking on the Vermont State Housing Authority to offer new project-based subsidies in the foreseeable future, the partnership has been reaching out to local service providers to absorb rent for tenants. Three local nonprofits have committed to such lease arrangements: Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (one unit), the Charter House Coalition (three units) and CSAC ( two to five units).
Addison County Community Trust Executive Director Elise Shanbacker said the Middlebury Shares supporters have been diligently searching for land on which the housing project could be built. The group has recently focused on property off Middlebury’s Seymour Street.
“Nothing concrete yet,” she said of the ongoing search.
Shanbacker noted bringing Middlebury Shares to fruition will be a challenging task.
“Basically, permanent supportive housing is thought of as a ‘three-legged stool’ — you need capital to build the housing, operating subsidy to pay the rent, and money to pay for on-site services,” she wrote in an emailed response to the Independent. “A big barrier to building this kind of housing in Addison County is that the Vermont State Housing Authority doesn’t have any more project-based Section 8 vouchers to make available, so we lack access to operating subsidy that can pay for housing expenses.”
The Vermont Department of Mental Healthy occasionally has housing funds for its clients, but those subsidies are more directed to small group homes than a larger-scale development, Shanbacker explained.
If organizers are able to secure low-cost or free property in a property zoned district in Middlebury, they’d seek to design a housing project that’s creative, comfortable and energy efficient.
Pixley is a fan of the “tiny home village” concept: A series of homes, all less than 500 square feet, organized around a common space in a manner that would give residents a sense of independence while enjoying a sense of community. Washington State is home to many tiny home villages that are proving very successful, according to Pixley.
“For the homeless population, this idea is popular,” she said of tiny homes. “They choose to live on a small carbon footprint; they choose to live simply.”
While the tiny homes could be built affordably, developable land in and around Middlebury is costly, noted Pixley, who’s hoping the town or a property owner could provide some real estate at low cost, or for free.
Anyone with ideas on how to advance Middlebury Shares can email Shanbacker at elise@addisontrust.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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