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Charter House closes its warming shelter

MIDDLEBURY — Concerns about the spread of coronavirus prompted the Charter House Coalition (CHC) to close its warming shelter on Saturday, March 21, but homeless individuals continued to be served in Addison County. The CHC sent its remaining guests to local motels and hotels, including the Courtyard by Marriott, and the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes continues to keep its doors open.
Doug Sinclair, CHC co-director, explained the traffic in and out of the shelter made the shelter too vulnerable to COVID-19 contagion. The shelter accommodates overnight guests who are served by staff and volunteers.
 “We just started looking at all the volunteers and staff who have to come in and out of the building, and guests who had to go to work, and a couple of guests who weren’t cooperative, in terms of staying in the building if they felt they didn’t need to,” Sinclair said during a Monday morning phone interview.
Two shelter guests became ill last week and were submitted to COVID-19 tests, according to Sinclair. This required staff that had worked with those two guests to be quarantined for 72 hours until test results came in (which were negative).
“We looked at the combination of those two things happening, and said ‘The risk is really high; the whole house could be quarantined and out of business,’” Sinclair said. “A lot of people could get sick. Then we could end up being a hot point for community spread.”
This prompted the CHC to send all its guests to area motels and hotels. The CHC and John Graham shelter — run by John Graham Housing & Services — had already made such accommodations for homeless folks who were at greatest risk of getting very sick if they contracted the coronavirus. There are now 42 homeless people staying in Addison County hotels/motels at state expense, according to Sinclair.
The state of Vermont is footing the lodging bills.
But Sinclair stressed the shelter is still preparing and delivering free meals for the motel-based homeless. Those community meals are also available for carry-out to the community at large.
“We and a community of partners and the Middlebury College dining services are really picking things up over the course of the week.”
One of the unfortunate bi-products of the shelter closure is the CHC has had to lay off folks who’ve helped operate the facility. Sinclair recently interviewed three Middlebury College students who had offered to help staff the shelter during the campus shutdown. Now CHC will be unable to hire those students.
“It’s very sad for all of us,” Sinclair said. “It was heartbreaking to have to close the shelter, but sometimes you have to make decisions like that.”
Since the CHC functions primarily with volunteers, there are relatively few paid staff. The CHC is currently left with three full-time workers and one part-timers on the payroll.
Plans call for the warming shelter to get a major cleaning, in anticipation of its reopening in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, it could open to an emergency management team, if the state were to deploy one to Addison County.
Meanwhile, John Graham Housing & Services sent out an email this past weekend that it is persevering through  the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to provide:
•  Prepared meals and food to all houses and sites and the to community
•  Housing at its apartments in Vergennes, Middlebury and Bristol.
•  Separate off-site housing for people with high risks
•  In-person and over the phone counseling and support
•  Triaging with state officials to ensure that vulnerable people get the medical care and transportation they need.
•  Staffing in 10-hour shifts so professionals are always present around the clock to keep people safe.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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