Brattleboro shelter leaders on transition amid grieving killed staffer
Many people experiencing homelessness and hunger in Brattleboro rely on the Groundworks collaborative. The nonprofit staff are still grieving following a colleague's killing in April. Now the longtime executive director is moving on — Vermont Edition spoke with him about his decision, and to the person stepping into his shoes.
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend pressing play on the audio posted above. For accessibility, we also provide a transcript of part of the show. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Mikaela Lefrak: Welcome back to Vermont Edition. I'm Mikaela Lefrak. 2023 has been a particularly hard year for Vermont shelter workers, from the state curtailing its motel housing program to the ever worsening effects of the opioid crisis. But for the staff and clients at the Groundworks Collaborative in Brattleboro, the challenges go far beyond that. In April, a shelter coordinator was killed allegedly by a Groundworks client. But through it all, the nearly 50 Groundworks employees have continued to do their jobs helping others. Groundworks is now in a state of transition. Last month, Groundworks Executive Director Josh Davis announced he's leaving for a new role after eight years in the job. Former Brattleboro town manager and Groundworks Deputy Executive Director Peter Elwell will serve as the interim leader. Both are joining me today. Josh and Peter, welcome.
Josh, as a shelter operator in Brattleboro, you're you're in a really unique position to to know how many people are unhoused and how much demand in that area is surpassing supply. What can you tell us about the numbers of people who are facing homelessness in the community?
Josh Davis: Yeah, I think from my vantage point, we have a significant number of people who are needing support with housing. You know, our shelter on South Main has 28 beds right now that are consistently full, and we often have a waitlist of folks looking for shelter and the motel program while it has made some changes and is winding down a bit albeit slowly, still has, you know, over 100 participants in that program the last time I checked, and then we have additional folks that are in the community. And it's hard to put a specific number on that. But we have seen that number increase over the last few months of people that really have no place to go and are camping out whether it's downtown or somewhere in the community more broadly.
Mikaela Lefrak: And when you say 100 participants in the the motel housing program, you mean for people who are based in the Brattleboro area or in the county?
Josh Davis: In the Brattleboro area, yeah. Here locally.
Mikaela Lefrak: Peter, from your vantage point, do you, do you feel like the needs for the types of services that the Groundworks provides have have been increasing?
Peter Elwell: There's no question about that. We've seen over the course of the last decade increasing need. Fortunately, in some significant ways Groundworks over that period of time has developed an increased capacity to provide support to people who are experiencing homelessness in this moment, and also people who are maybe have been homeless and are moving into housing but need continued support in order to maintain stable housing going forward. There's a variety of different ways beyond just the emergency overnight shelter that we provide support to people in the community. And yeah, both from my prior vantage point as town manager, and now from being part of the team here at Groundworks, on a daily basis, there's no question that this need has significantly increased here in our community over the last several years.
We have a significant number of people who are needing support with housing. ... It's hard to put a specific number on that. But we have seen that number increase over the last few months of people that really have no place to go.Groundworks Executive Director Josh Davis
Mikaela Lefrak: Well, let's learn a little bit more about Groundworks and the services the organization provides, particularly for our listeners who are outside of the Brattleboro area. Josh, you started at ground works as a volunteer 14 years ago, I think it is, is that true?
Josh Davis: That's correct. I did start as a volunteer, I was working with an organization that would glean vegetables, and then work to get vegetables into low income communities. And so that organization has become Food Connects, which is a really strong organization locally. And so as part of that, I would go into Morningside Shelter and help out with their community meal. That would happen once a week. And really just being a part of the culture and being able to experience that, being able to connect with the people who were there. I immediately fell in love with Morningside and just started as I, as I say, this started hanging around the organization. And so I was a volunteer, I worked in evening shift for a while, I was a board member. And then 11 and a half years ago was appointed the executive director. And so at that time, it was just Morningside Shelter that I was director of. And when I came in, that organization had a budget of roughly $400,000 and we had about a dozen employees. And a little over eight years ago, Morningside merged with the Brattleboro area drop in center to form Groundworks Collaborative. And now we have over 50 employees and a wide array of services that we provide from the shelter that I mentioned on South Main that is a emergency overnight shelter as well as a day shelter for folks to come in. We have Food Works, which is a food shelf here locally. We are partners in with Windham in Windsor Housing Trust on two permanent supportive housing projects, Great River Terrace, and the Island Chalet. And the chalet was a project that we really pulled together during COVID and used COVID funds to try and come up with a solution to help people exit the motels and into permanent housing. Then we have case management services that supports folks in a array of housing situations from literally homeless and on the street through leasing out process and even stays with folks after they are housed to help ensure that they maintain housing. Additionally, as we were talking about the need for our services, we're able to be innovative and creative, and a great example of that is our health works partnership that we have a partnership with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, the Brattleboro Retreat and HCRS to provide a community health team for folks that are most vulnerable in our community and the folks that we serve at Groundworks.
Mikaela Lefrak: Josh from, from being a volunteer 14 years ago to the executive director of Groundworks today, it's a fascinating path that you followed and in some ways that path is is is coming to an end at the end of this month when you'll be heading to Southeastern Vermont Community Action. Why did you decide that this was the time to move on?
Josh Davis: There were a couple of different factors that led me to this decision. I think it's clear and I talk a lot about my affection for Groundworks. I love this organization. I love the work that we do. And there's an intensity to it. And I think the intensity is something that I've just looked at from my own personal well-being, and also thinking about, you know, what's next for me in terms of professional challenge, and wanting to stay rooted in this community in southeastern Vermont, a place that I happily call home, I love being here and raising a family here. And so when the job itself came open, it seemed like a great next step for me individually, but also be able to stay within a similar field of work. Seth has been a longtime, great partner for the work that we've done at Groundworks. And it helps me to expand my vantage points and impact regionally.
Mikaela Lefrak: Now, Peter, you know, hearing Josh just describe the the work that Groundworks does, as both deeply meaningful, but, you know, also potentially personally challenging. I wonder how you felt, with the ask to step into this leadership role. Any concerns, any particular hopes for what you'll be able to accomplish?
Peter Elwell: Sure. Hopes, yes. Concerns, not any that are that are too significant. It, I think is important to note why I'm involved with the staff at all, might help explain how this transition that we're moving into, this transition feels really natural, and, and not overly daunting. This is a really big moment for Groundworks. And it's also a moment that through Josh's leadership, and the work of many others here on our team, we're ready for and part of that is that a little over a year ago, I went on to the Groundworks board, I had done a lot of work with Josh and other members of the Groundworks team while I was town manager, really admired them personally, and the quality of the work that the Groundworks has been doing, and the importance of that work in our community. And so one of the things that after I retired from being brought across town manager that I really knew I wanted to be involved with was supporting Groundworks. And I did that initially as a board member. But as we got into the winter months last year, it became clear and it was a decision that we made mutually that I could probably actually contribute more and better by coming part time onto the staff and supporting Josh and other members of the leadership team and the work that we do here. And that's when I stepped in as the deputy director, with the perspective that I bring now to this moment from having worked with the staff. Now, since last, the end of February of last year, I feel really both sufficiently informed and prepared for the responsibilities I'm going to carry. And also really confident of the abilities of the team both within the leadership team and the different people who are responsible for our various programs, as well as you know, all the folks who are delivering the services in those programs every day. We've been through a lot this year. And that has made us stronger in many ways. And over the longer arc from before this year. This team has been building its readiness to go through a transition like this. Which is really inevitable when somebody like Josh has been so integrally involved in building it up as a founder really, from the merger forward and expanding the services in so many different ways that are, you know, really, inevitably would have come a time when we would go through this kind of a transition. Fortunately, Josh saw that coming and has done a lot of really good preparation for it.
Mikaela Lefrak: As I mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, many shelters are facing very real challenges right now, but I can't think of another place that has gone through what Groundworks’ clients and staff have have gone through this year so, so let's let's pause and talk about this for a moment here. In April, the shelter coordinator there was murdered in front of a number of witnesses and on video surveillance, and a Groundworks client has been charged with that murder. It was, it was a devastating, shocking event for the organization, for the Brattleboro community overall, for all of us who followed this story. Josh, how, how are things feeling now? Let's start with staff, how are your staff doing?
To be supported in a moment like that, by the broader community, is just amazing and something we'll never forget. ... So the magnitude of that loss was so great personally. And yet, not just because we're all committed to the work, but also in part to honor Leah because of her commitment to the work, we knew we had to come out and be stronger and do better.Groundworks Deputy Executive Director Peter Elwell
Josh Davis: Thank you for asking. You know, I would say, in my estimation, overall, we're, we're OK. And I don't think we would be OK if we haven't spent so much time investing in our collective healing. We remain in the healing process. This is not something that we feel like is done. And we are clear of, you know, just a week and a half ago, there was somebody that showed up on our property and brandish a hatchet, which really was traumatic, for lack of a better word. And it's something that is, we continue to grapple with and work with on almost a daily basis. And we have an incredible staff who show up, we have an incredible team in terms of our board and support and leadership team, that are doing everything that we can to support ourselves and our clients as we go through this healing process, while at the same time continuing to provide services. And, you know, a big piece of this was initially in the in the days, right after April 3, we made the decision to pause, to close the organization, which on retrospect was, I think, a really wise thing to do to allow us just to make sense of what had happened, and to figure out how we're going to put one foot in front of the other. And we couldn't have done that without the support of a number of community organizations who stepped in to help us out. Because, you know, one of the things with Groundworks is we never close. And that was evident during the pandemic, when folks were transitioning to work from home and Zoom culture really started to take off is when we really showed up, and we were there in person. And we didn't have the ability to do that. And you know, the pandemic was a really scary time. And folks were not really sure what we were dealing with, and what does it mean to be in public? And how do we show up in those ways, and our staff were right there on the front lines. And so to be able to pause was really a profound moment for us and to be able to sit with what happened and figure out how we're going to put one foot in front of the other really set that trajectory for us on this path of healing that we, we continue to be on.
More from Vermont Public: After shelter killing, community volunteers step in to let Brattleboro service agency staff grieve
Mikaela Lefrak: Josh, we can, you know, hear the emotion in your voice when you talk about the role that folks in the community played to keep Groundworks going in the wake of this tragedy. I can only imagine how impactful that felt for you and other staff members to see so many people show up and reading about it really was an incredible volunteer effort there. Peter, what, what do you remember from that time?
Peter Elwell: I remember very vividly the day that we asked for that help. And it all came together really quickly. As you can imagine. Leah had been murdered on a Monday morning. Tuesday and Wednesday, we were trying to find our way forward and realized that we just couldn't just go on, and then with anything resembling normal operations. And so Wednesday, we reached out to as many community partners as we could gather onto an email list and asked that people show up the following afternoon in a big conference from what had been the Austrian School and is now the Winston Prouty Center. And we were hoping maybe because it was such short notice and such a big ask for people to come and work with us on how they might hold parts of our, of our work. For three weeks was what our ask was. We were hoping that maybe you know, a dozen or 20 would show up and in a room that comfortably holds 100 people there were people lining the walls and spilling out into the hallway. And yeah, you do hear emotion in our voices because to be supported in a moment like that, by the broader community, is just amazing and something we'll never forget. And it made it possible for us to go into what we've called the Groundworks Pause and do the work that we did really intensely during that time and beginning the process of trying to understand and trying to begin healing and also the organizational work of, you know, how will we be different when we come back out of the pause, opened back up on May 1. And really the story since then has been those parallel processes of dealing with the impossible to fully address or really, I never understand the the loss of Leah as not only in the manner that had happened and being, you know, at the hands of a client, but a person who was particularly devoted to this work and effective in this work and a beautiful person that was a friend to us as well as a colleague. And so the magnitude of that loss was so great personally. And yet, not just because we're all committed to the work, but also in part to honor Leah because of her commitment to the work, we knew we had to come out and be stronger and do better. And we, I think I've lived that, since May 1, in very many different ways that make staying aware of issues of safety, and first focusing on how we can reduce risk, not just for employees, but for program participants and other people in the community as well. How we can really make a constant part of our work paying attention to those issues? And, and still be, you know, not putting barriers between us and the people we serve, but maintaining relationship and communication and service and support.
Note: This is a partial transcript of the conversation. To hear the rest of the show, including discussions on the future of Groundworks, listen to the full audio provided above.
Broadcast at noon Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.