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How One Homeless Shelter Is Preparing For Winter During The Pandemic

A person lifts up a tarp on a picnic table.
Peter Hirschfeld
VPR File
Homeless shelters are preparing as COVID-19 cases rise and temperatures drop.

As the weather becomes colder, many families in Vermont are anxiously searching for housing and programming to support their basic needs. We'll speak with a Burlington homeless shelter to hear about their plans for the winter months amid the continuing pandemic.

Our guest is:

Broadcast live on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Who Does Spectrum Serve?

  • “For our housing programs, we focus on primarily transition aged youth, which is 16-to- 24-year-olds. You may think that some of those youth have family support, but it really has been magnified

    "People oftentimes attach certain stigmas to homelessness. But it can happen to anybody. We see youth from all walks of life come through our doors." - Will Towne, Spectrum Youth and Family Services

    throughout this pandemic that those supports are not necessarily there. Youth that are able to couch surf with friends during tough times may not be able to [now], because of the capacity of those apartments and the distancing factor. So we felt extremely concerned about youth having to sleep outside on the streets. 

  • “People oftentimes attach certain stigmas to homelessness. But it can happen to anybody. We see youth from all walks of life come through our doors. And we just feel so strongly that we need to step up and meet that need.”

How Has The Pandemic Affected Need For Services?

  • “We focus specifically on the youth population. But I know throughout this pandemic, there have been over 400 individuals living in the hotel system in Chittenden County. And I believe that number is significantly higher right now, I just don’t have the exact figure. I think that's across the board the case outside of our youth population as well. 
  • “So, there's been a significant uptick. And I don't necessarily think that the problem has gotten so much worse, but I think that it has come to the forefront more. I think right now, we do have an opportunity to connect folks to services as well.” 

More from VPR: ‘Bringing Urgency To Homelessness’: Grants Help Landlords Rehab, Rent Housing

How is Spectrum Prioritizing Safety This Winter? 

  • “We always go into the winter with a certain level of concern. I mean, we talk about safety so much right now in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a huge part of people's safety is having a roof over their head, as well. So we really need to focus on a way to balance those two ideas and integrate our approaches for COVID safety into being able to still provide our services to the youth that we serve.
  • “So we are going to be opening our youth winter warming shelter this Sunday night on Nov. 1, which we usually run through the duration of the winter to provide some low-barrier housing to folks that may not otherwise have a place to stay. That space is congregate living, and I think

    "A huge part of people's safety is having a roof over their head." - Will Towne, Spectrum Youth and Family Services

    everybody agrees that is not the safest model for housing folks during a global pandemic. But it is something that we felt strongly we needed to move forward with. 

  • “The biggest thing that we focus on is space itself: making sure that there is appropriate space where folks can distance themselves physically with wearing masks, staff wearing PPE and things of that nature, as well as using air filtration systems, UV-C light filtration systems, and HEPA air filters. 
  • “[Another primary focus is] just education. That's a big piece that we keep going back to: educating the staff and the youth of the precautions they can take, like wiping down surfaces three times per shift, [and then also] disinfecting every single day with a janitorial company, things of that nature, that will really enhance our ability to get through this safely.”

More from VPR: Shelter Plus Care: Addressing Homelessness In Rural Vermont

How Has Funding Affected Spectrum During The Pandemic?

  • “We are lucky to have an exceptional development team that does a significant amount of fundraising. We are always investigating new funding streams, whether it's grants, state or federal funding. 
  • “We have a really good relationship and partnership with the state of Vermont Office of Economic Opportunity and other departments there. So, they've been very active throughout this whole process, very communicative. We've got a good relationship and we're doing the best we can, for sure.”

Spectrum’s New Drop-In Center In St Albans

  • “We will be putting out more and more information as things become more concrete, in terms of contacting us. But for youth that are looking for those services, I would encourage them to talk with folks at their schools, who we've been in contact with: NCSS, which is Northwestern Counseling & Support Services; we're going to have a partnership as well with them. There's a Turning Point Center up there. So there are plenty of different organizations that we're going to be working very closely with, that will be able to contact and get in touch with the youth. 

  • “And, of course, you can go to our website and contacting us directly to find out more. We have info at You can reach out via email, our Facebook, account, our Instagram account. We will be able to contact folks that way as well, and be in touch and get more information out.”

How Has Unemployment Affected Spectrum’s Job Training Services?

  • “It’s a huge challenge. We have a number of programs that address that. We have our JOBS program, which is an acronym for“Jump on Board for Success.”That's a partnership between us, the Howard Centerand the State of Vermont’s Division of Vocational Rehab. And they're still taking clients, although a lot of their case management is done remotely, which is a huge challenge.

    "We're going to be opening up a Drop-In Center in St. Albans, hopefully on Jan. 1, 2021 ... We're just thrilled to be able to get up there and start providing more services to the youth in that area." - Will Towne, Spectrum Youth and Family Services

    But they have great community connections and are able to get youth into jobs as well as help them retain those positions. 

  • “One other piece is our car detailing business that we have, which is called Detail Works. That's an enterprise that we started in 2017, that builds a little bit of programming into an employment experience. A lot of the youth we serve don't have lengthy employment histories, or haven’t had the opportunity to develop the soft skills to be able to hold down a job. So what we do is we hire the youth in our programs and they detail cars while learning how to be a good employee and then have a good reference and some connections in the community to move on to more permanent employment. That's just a wonderful program that provides a great service to the youth as well as the community.” 

How Can Community Members Support Youth Experiencing Homelessness?

  • “There are so many different ways people can give and assist. If you go to our website,, we have a “Ways You Can Help” page. We have listed there, basic pandemic related items [that we’re seeking as donations]: hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, spray, prepackaged food donations like single-serving gift cards to grocery stores - things of that nature, as well as our normal winter items. 
  • “And I think outside of our agency as well, boots, hats, jackets, snow pants, things that really can help people get through this winter. I think that also is a huge impact that COVID-19 has had, where a lot of agencies and places that folks would go to during the day are not open or not able to accommodate the same numbers. So we're concerned about that as well: where folks are going to go during the day, even if they do have a place to go at night.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

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Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Ruby Smith was an intern in the Vermont Edition production team during the winter of 2020-21.
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