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St. Johnsbury Seeks Consensus On Homeless Shelter

Charlotte Albright
Free lunch is served several times a week in the basement of North Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury, and about a third of the diners are homeless.

There’s a brisk debate in St. Johnsbury over whether to open an emergency warming shelter this winter. Several sites have been proposed and rejected. So the fate of about 40 homeless families is still unclear.

The Northeast Kingdom town is deeply divided about a problem that is affecting many communities. A few retailers fear a downtown shelter could hurt business on Railroad Street, which has been trying to attract more shoppers.

Lisa Mcdonough owns The Artful Eye, a large arts and antiques shop on Main Street. She agrees that a homeless shelter is needed but thinks it should be near the hospital, close to medical and psychological services and far from the shopping district.

"If you are going to design a warming shelter where you’ve  got people who are going to be there overnight but they're going to be kicked out at, say, 9 o'clock in the morning when it's 10 degrees out, where do you think they're going to go?" she asks.

Many daytime loiterers, she says, look for warmth in her store, where they deter customers and leave trash. In fact, the problem is so bad, and the local economy is so uncertain, that she's decided to sell her business.

"...They're going to be kicked out at, say, 9 o'clock in the morning when it's 10 degrees out. Where do you think they're going to go?" - Lisa McDonough, business owner

Meanwhile, the search for a shelter continues. Doug Moore, a pastor at the North Congregational Church, is inviting parishioners to a meetingTuesday night to consider providing 10 cots in the church through the three coldest winter months. 

The town’s attorney says that would require a zoning permit, which could take many months, but Moore says that raises some church-state questions. 

You know that to me puts the town in the position of actually telling the church what its worship is and what it isn’t and that to me feels like very thin ice,” Moore says.

The church hosts a free lunch to about a hundred people a few times a week. Longtime meals director Kay Clifford says at least a third of these diners couch surf, or live outside. Still, she's not sure a church offers enough social supports or supervision.

Well I think we look around, there’s plenty of empty buildings that could be much more fit for what we need than this is,” Clifford says.

"That ... puts the town in the position of actually telling the church what its worship is and what it isn't, and that to me feels like very thin ice." - Pastor Doug Moore

She’d like to see a permanent site elsewhere.

Currently, the state’s Department for Children and Families provides motel vouchers for at least 35 homeless families in St. Johnsbury. Sean Brown is Deputy Director of Economic Services. Statewide, he says Vermont’s  homeless population seeking shelter has been growing rapidly.

“This past winter we received almost 12,200; it was an almost doubling of the need,” Brown says.

But motel rooms, he says, are scarce in St. Johnsbury, and not an ideal solution. There will be a public hearingin the town offices on Wednesday about proposed changes to the by-laws clarifying the definition and rules for temporary shelter. 

I certainly do not want to see the town divided over this, so I’ve been trying to get some dialogue in a peace-making kind of way,” says Sue Cherry, chairs the Planning Commission. She is also the Executive Director of the St. Johnsbury Community Justice Program.

But whether peace can be made before winter sets in is still as unpredictable as the weather itself. 

Clarification 10/12/15: Free community lunches are served in St. Johnsbury three times a week by a non-profit called Kingdom Community Services at three different locations: The North Congregation Church, Grace United Methodist Church, and the Unitarian Universalist Church. Free evening meals are also served on a monthly basis at other local churches.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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