Homeless shelters adapt to COVID-19 rules

ROBBIE MILLER, KITCHEN manager of Charter House Coalition’s warming shelter at 27 North Pleasant St. in Middlebury, chats with two guests on Thursday. Shelters in Middlebury and Vergennes are changing protocols to continue to help the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a little daunting at times to consider how bad it could get. But it’s not going to serve any of us to spend our time living in fear and worrying about it. We’re just planning for it.
— Peter Kellerman, John Graham Housing & Services

UPDATE: The Charter House warming shelter has closed. Click here to read the story.
MIDDLEBURY — Addison County homeless shelters continue to stay open for business, and they’re working in concert with area lodgers to house those most apt to get very sick if they were to contract the coronavirus.

John Graham Housing & Services (JGHS) can accommodate up to 25 homeless individuals at its Vergennes shelter. In addition, the nonprofit owns and operates a combined total of 12 affordable apartment units in Vergennes, Middlebury and Bristol.
As usual, JGHS is full, but anyone who is homeless can call 802-877-2677 for help.
Coronavirus concerns have driven major changes in how the shelter must operate in order to protect clients and staff from possible contagion.
Those entering the shelter are screened, which includes a temperature check with a hand-held thermometer. Signs throughout the building remind people to keep washing their hands and to maintain “social distancing,” according to JGHS Co-director Peter Kellerman.
Realizing public laundromats are potential sites for the transfer of germs, the JGHS shelter is temporarily allowing clients to wash their clothes in-house.
“Every day is a new day,” he said during a phone interview. “You’ve just got to be ready to adjust and make any moves necessary. It’s a little daunting at times to consider how bad it could get. But it’s not going to serve any of us to spend our time living in fear and worrying about it. We’re just planning for it.”
Kellerman is pleased state government has provided resources for shelters to temporarily house some homeless folks at area motels. These are people who are either senior citizens and/or who have pre-existing medical conditions — like COPD, heart ailments and diabetes — that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Seven JGHS clients had been moved into motels as the Independent went to press on Friday.
“All the hotels here in Middlebury are available,” he said. “I have to give a shout-out to each and every one of them is open to helping. We haven’t used all of them at this point, but they all deserve a nod for being available to help out.”
Having homeless clients at remote locations sets up a litany of additional challenges, Kellerman noted. Meals must be delivered, wrap-around services need to be provided.
And it’s all happening, thanks to the dedication of JGHS workers. Currently, JGHS has three full-time staffers, three part-timers, two AmeriCorps service members, and a few volunteers.
“We’ve had to schedule a split shift, so we have separated our team so they aren’t overlapping on the days they work together, to try and minimize cross-contamination,” Kellerman said.
It’s all hands on deck. Partners including the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, the Vermont Agency of Human Services, are all working together on a daily basis to make sure shelters get the latest COVID-19 information and measures to respond to it. 
“We’re fully operational, and that’s not going to change at this point,” Kellerman said. “Everything is day-to-day. Locally, we’ve put together an emergency homeless response team.”
Officials remain concerned about the scarcity of basic supplies, such as hand sanitizer, toilet paper and disinfectant.
“Like everyone else, we’re trying to stay on top of whatever essential supplies that we need,” Kellerman said.
On the other hand, Kellerman is thrilled to see the county’s public schools maintain school lunches for many students who might otherwise go hungry while classes are out. And he’s pleased to see a budding online outreach effort to prospective volunteers and people having a hard time during the pandemic. It’s called Addison County Mutual Aid, a website in partnership with the United Way of Addison County. It can be found at
“What it means to be a volunteer at this time is crucial,” Kellerman said.
At the same time, he wants volunteers to be vigilant over their own health.
“There are going to be, I think, a lot of visits where people are leaving things on doorsteps,” he said.
Kellerman believes the collective work of government, nonprofits, public safety, health care workers and society in general is already paying big dividends.
“There’s been great progress statewide in staving off the worst possible outcome,” he said. “We just hope these efforts are going to stem the tide. We know the worst is yet to come. But the effort that is being made right now is just amazing. The level of cooperation and communication has been inspiring, to say the least.”

Doug Sinclair is co-director of the Charter House Coalition (CHC), a non-profit, volunteer-based organization dedicated to providing basic food and housing in and around Middlebury. The coalition closed its Middlebury warming shelter on Saturday, Match 21, out of concern for residents and CHC staff.
“It became clear in the last couple of days that Charter House was likely to become a hot point for community spread of COVID 19 in spite of best efforts to prevent that,” Sinclair said of the difficult decision.
Still, CHC staff will deliver meals and other services to homeless clients now staying at area hotels. Those meals will be among hundreds that will continue to be made in the Charter House kitchen at 27 North Pleasant St.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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