Shelter extends service into summer to meet high demand

MIDDLEBURY — It used to be the Charter House Coalition’s (CHC) warming shelter at 27 North Pleasant St. would close its doors when the calendar read late-April and the thermometer climbed into the 60s.
Not this year.
In response to growing demand, the CHC has decided to keep the shelter open, through at least the summer months, for up to 16 individuals with no other housing options. The much-respected nonprofit is still busy raising the estimated $62,000 it will take to keep the shelter operating well beyond its customary shut-down date of April 22.
“Here we are. We’re going for it as long as funding holds out,” said CHC Co-executive Director Samantha Kachmar.
As of this past Thursday the organization had raised around $30,000 toward the $62,000 goal, according to CHC Co-executive director Doug Sinclair. That money will pay for professional staffing, utilities and other operating costs to carry the shelter through the warmer months.
Monday, April 22, was the first day of the shelter’s “summer program.”
During the winter, the shelter was able to accommodate more than 20 individuals downstairs and up to five families in the upstairs. But organizers had to set a limit of 16 individuals for the summer, because going higher would require the CHC to pay an additional shelter supervisor, Sinclair explained.
“We can’t afford to have two staff people… and that limits what we can do,” he said.
It’s only in its first week of operation, yet the summer shelter is already at capacity. And this is during a warmer time of year when demand for emergency housing typically subsides.
“The 16 who are here are the hardest to house,” Sinclair said. “It’s those who have the toughest challenge getting into housing.”
It’s really a reflection of the trend CHC officials saw this past winter, when the shelter served an all-time high of 124 distinct individuals. That’s around 30 percent more than the facility has ever served, Sinclair said, adding that of the 124 individuals, many were repeat visitors, while some stayed only a night or two.
The 26 children who took temporary refuge with their families at 27 North Pleasant St. was also a record, Sinclair said. “We also had a fairly large number of youths, defined as 18-24 years old. We were busy.”
And tragically, a high percentage of guests this past winter were living with mental illness.
“I think we’re seeing a growing trend — more and more mental illness is a big factor,” Sinclair said.
Other visitors were part of the workforce, but simply couldn’t make ends meet.
“More and more people are working, but they can’t make enough money to find a place they can afford,” Sinclair said. “There are very few single rooms available on a home-share basis, and things like that. There’s no hope of their getting into any kind of an apartment.”
Yet some shelter clients did transition to more permanent housing during the course of the winter. The CHC invites social services providers to work with guests to improve their housing and employment prospects.
“We’re always fortunate that about half of them are able to come up with some sort of housing, whether it’s their own place or doubling up with others, or going to live with family in some other part of the country,” Sinclair said.
Summer shelter hours and services will be less expansive than those offered during the winter. Guests can come in at 9 p.m., but must leave by 7 the next morning. Day station hours (for referrals to services) have been slightly reduced for the summer, to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
“And we’re not able to have food service during shelter hours,” Kachmar said. “We still maintain all of our community meals; we just won’t have separate shelter meal service.”
Those residing at the shelter this summer will also notice some construction activity.
The aging building will be equipped with an improved heating system and a small elevator, which will be built in place of an existing shower. The CHC will build a new, fully accessible bathroom within the building.
“We need to improve our accessibility,” Sinclair said. “The (wheelchair) ramp we have here is not up to current code. We really need to have an elevator.”
Middlebury architect Ashar Nelson, of Vermont Integrated Architecture, has generously offered his services to design the elevator project, Sinclair said.
Meanwhile, the shelter’s heating system “failed us badly last winter,” Sinclair noted. He explained the oldest part of the building has a single-zone system that occasionally resulted in dramatic temperature swings in different rooms. “One room might have been 85 degrees and another one 55, and there was nothing we could do about it,” he said. “So we’re going to be spending quite a bit of money taking care of that.”
But before the CHC can get going on the heating system and elevator, it will have to pay contractors around $50,000 to remove asbestos and vermiculite from the structure. That potentially hazardous material is present in ceiling, attic and pipe insulation, according to Sinclair.
The good news is the CHC has raised around two-thirds of its $600,000 capital campaign goal. Anyone wishing to contribute to CHC programs, including the warming shelter, should head online to charterhousecoalition.org.
“We’re doing our best to run all of our programs without disruption (of services),” Sinclair said. “We’ve talked to our contractor and believe we can pretty much pull it off.”
One way they will be able to fulfill their tasks is with a host of volunteer help from area college students. About 15 beds in the upstairs of the shelter (normally set aside for families during the winter) will be used for housing those students who, in turn, will be volunteering with various charitable causes in the Middlebury area set up through the CHC. Essentially, the students will be provided free housing in exchange for at least 10 hours of volunteer work per week.
While it’s tough to operate and fund a shelter, Sinclair and Kachmar know it’s a vital service. They get reminders almost every day that their work is making an impact on the guests they serve.
“We’ve had people who’ve reconnected with family in some way, who have attained employment and been able to maintain it,” Kachmar said. “Some have connected with the Turning Point Center and are still working on recovery and doing well with it. It’s these accomplishments that keep us going.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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