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High Demand Prompts Brattleboro Winter Shelter To Open Early

Brattleboro’s winter shelter for the homeless will open for the season this Sunday, almost a month earlier than in past years.

Officials say the demand for overnight shelter has increased because of federal budget cuts that disproportionately affect the poor.

When the Brattleboro Area Drop In center opens at eight each morning Lucie Fortier often finds a crowd of people lined up outside.

“We probably have ten people out there, waiting to come in and get warmed up and have coffee,” she says.

Fortier, who directs the daytime shelter, says it’s been that way all fall.

“A lot of them are sleeping along the river bank, some are camping under the bridges, she says. “Our people need to have a safe place to sleep”

The Drop In Center also sponsors the overnight winter shelter in the Baptist Church on Main Street. The service is funded by donations and a state grant. It’s run by volunteers, social service agencies and the local interfaith clergy group.

This year everyone agreed that the service was needed before the scheduled opening on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

“The demand is just there,” Fortier explains. “People were calling, wanting to know when is the shelter going to open, is there any place else we can stay until the shelter was open.” 

But Fortier says there aren’t many options. Programs have been squeezed by federal budget cuts. Section-8 housing subsidies are frozen. In Brattleboro an anti-camping ordinance and a crackdown on railroad property has even made it harder to live outside.

Angus Chaney chairs the Vermont Council on Homelessness. He says the effects of federal sequestration are being felt statewide. He says the cuts are negatively impacting state programs that had been working.

“I think sequestration was designed to be painful by people in Washington who were trying to force agreement on something,” Chaney says. “The concern that we’re seeing in the housing community is that it’s disproportionately painful on people who are homeless or have unstable housing.”

But while the numbers of homeless people were fairly level statewide over the past year, Chaney says Brattleboro saw a twelve percent increase.

Lucie Fortier says the Brattleboro winter shelter served a hundred-seventy-two people in the six months it was open last year. That includes five families and at least eight children.

“Some of these are working poor families that are working either at McDonalds or Burger King” Fortier adds. “They have to get up to start their shift a six o clock in the morning. Unless they have subsidized housing they cannot afford regular housing.”

Fortier says the shelter is gearing up for more of the same this year.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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