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Vermont's Volunteer-Run Winter Homeless Shelters Prepare To Open

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Volunteers meet at Brattleboro's emergency winter shelter to talk about the upcoming season.

Just three years ago, the state spent more than $4.5 million on emergency housing for the homeless. Since then, there's been a shift toward investing in warming shelters, and other programs in communities around the state.

In Brattleboro, it's volunteer training night at the winter overflow shelter, and about a dozen people are sitting around a table, asking questions about the upcoming season.

"Everyone is still going to be on cots?" one of the volunteers asks.

"Everyone's still going to be on cots," says Rhianna Kendrick, the operations manager. "We have blankets, and the Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing Board just donated pillows, so we have brand new pillows for everyone."

There are meetings like this going on across the state as volunteers try to make sure no one dies outside this winter because they have nowhere to go.

There are eight emergency winter shelters across Vermont that receive state assistance.

They're mostly in churches, all staffed by volunteers who are asked, every night, to work with people who are dealing with substance abuse, domestic violence or just a bit of bad luck.

These volunteer-run shelters are at the core of the state's strategy to not have homeless people staying out in motels along commercial strips.

"If a place helps you out, you turn around and you help them back." - Gordon Diers, volunteer at Brattleboro's shelter

An isolated motel could be the worst place for a woman fleeing domestic violence, and when people are safe and warm in one place, it's easier to have counselors or state workers provide services.

Gordon Diers received some of those services last year when he found himself homeless, just after Christmas.

Diers is a vet. He's got medical issues, and he lost his housing last year after making what he says were some bad decisions.

"I stayed here for the whole winter," he says. "I did sleep in a friend's car, and I tried some other things. And probably if this place wasn't here, I don't know if I would have been alive."

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Gordon Diers spent most of last winter at the Brattleboro shelter, and he says he wants to volunteer at the shelter this year.

Diers was at the meeting in Brattleboro.

He says he's got stable housing now, and depending on how his upcoming surgery goes, he's planning on volunteering at the winter overflow shelter this season.

"It's not always drug addicts or alcoholics," Diers says. "I don't drink. I don't do drugs. There are, if you want to say it, just regular people that have  issues too. So they helped me out, giving me a place, and getting me the medical needs. And I feel that I should pay it back. I mean, they helped me out, and I think more people need to see that. That if a place helps you out, you turn around and you help them back."

Kendrick, the operations manager, says the community warming shelters make it easier to bring everyone into the conversation on how to best serve the homeless, and make sure there are as few surprises and emergencies as possible.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Volunteers have to fill out paperwork and learn the shelter rules.

"I think the community is much more aware and educated than they ever have been before, and committed to finding solutions," Kendrick says. "So how do we support folks who have persistent mental health needs that are here? And how do we work with the police department and the hospital to make sure that we're serving folks in the best way that we can?"

And the money saved on motels means there are resources to hire counselors who can help people move into more permanent housing, according to Department for Children and Families Deputy Commissioner Sean Brown.

"Not only is it a better service model than using a motel, but it's much better for families with kids," he says. "And we're seeing that it's helping move families quicker from — early indications — from homelessness to more secure housing. Which is what we want to see happen."

Last year the state spent about $3.7 million on emergency housing. It was the first year in a while that spending was down from the previous year.

"Not only is it a better service model than using a motel, but it's much better for families with kids." - Sean Brown, DCF deputy commissioner

And Brown says the amount spent on alternative programs this year, not motels, has more than doubled to about $1.5 million.

"The data is trending in a very positive direction from the year before to last year. The number of homeless Vermonters decreased," he says. "That's a positive trend, and we just hope to build on that moving forward."

Last year there were challenges in Rutland, St. Johnsbury and Morrisville, as communities couldn't agree on the best locations for the shelters. And even though it was a pretty mild winter, the state still spent more than $344,000 on motels.

Brown says all the winter shelters will be opening up in the coming weeks.

There are hardly ever enough volunteers, but each shelter makes do with what they have.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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