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Through Pilot Work Program, Brattleboro Aims To Break Down Barriers To Full-Time Work

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Karissa Littleton sanitizes a parking meter in downtown Brattleboro. Littleton is taking part in the Work Today program, which pays people with barriers to full-time employment to perform jobs around town.

Brattleboro has been trying to come up with solutionsto reduce panhandling for a few years now. Over the past few months, a new program that pays people for a day’s work has shown some promise.The Work Today program gives people who are experiencing homelessness and who face barriers in securing full-time work a chance to get experience and make a little money.

On a recent morning, ten people who were taking part in the program gathered in a parking lot in downtown Brattleboro to get their assignments for the day.

More from VPR: Homelessness, Panhandling And Addiction: Brattleboro Tackles 'Severe' Challenges

Nick Kane walked up to a table after his name was called. He said he was looking to spend the day sanitizing parking meters for the town.

Through the program, he'd work until 3 p.m. for $15 an hour, and pick up his envelope of cash at the end of the day.

"I haven't always made the best of choices in my life, which can hinder your seeking of employment... So it's become extremely beneficial I feel like to some of us less fortunate in the community." - Alan Stay, Work Today program

Kane said when he’s walking around with a work vest on, his interactions with the public feel different than when he used to be out in the same streets panhandling.

“Considering I used to just stand on a corner and hold a sign, it feels a lot different,” Kane said. “It feels good to actually work for my money instead of sit there and beg for it. I’ve never been afraid of work, that’s for sure, and it feels a lot different because it gives me something to do, versus just going around and begging people.”

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Michaela Stockwell, far right, who leads the Work Today program gets ready to assign people the jobs they will perform for the rest of the day.

Brattleboro has been dealing with an increase in panhandling and homelessness over the past few summers, and the town put up public port-a-potties last year to address some issues that arose as a result of more people living on its streets.

Emilie Kornheiser is with the local nonprofit Youth Services, which is running the Work Today program. She said the program is just one more way the town has been trying to serve people who are in crisis.

More from Vermont Edition: How One Homeless Shelter Is Preparing For Winter During The Pandemic

“It was really important to us that we be clear that this is not a solution to homelessness,” Kornheiser said. “This is not a solution to people being on the street. This is public space; everyone has a right to be on the street. And so, throughout those conversations, we really wanted to make sure that people knew that this was one part of a solution to meet the needs of people in our community who don’t have access to other forms of cash and other ways of making money.”

The town put up $65,000 to fund a three-month pilot program, which is just wrapping up as the cold weather hits.

"Considering I used to just stand on a corner and hold a sign it feels a lot different...It feels a lot different because it gives me something to do versus just going around and begging people." - Nick Kane, Work Today program

And the need has far outpaced the availability of jobs.

The ten slots quickly fill up each day, and Youth Services had to develop a rotating sign-up system to give the 50-or-so people who are looking for work a chance to partake.

Along with sanitizing parking meters, there are jobs at the town library, at the downtown River Garden or working on a trail system in some nearby woods.

Alan Stay was working on the trails recently,  pulling up invasive plants.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Alan Stay tosses a bunch of invasive plants over a bank along the Retreat Trails in Brattleboro.

Stay said he’s been in recovery for about a year now, but it’s still hard to get a job with some of the baggage he’s carrying.

He said this program has felt like one more positive step he’s taking to turn things around.

“I haven’t always made the best of choices in my life, which can hinder your seeking of employment, you know,” he said. “But I like to think of myself as a good worker now that I’m in recovery and getting back to where I need to be. So it’s become extremely beneficial, I feel like, to some of us less fortunate in the community.”

More from VPR: In Brattleboro, Residents At Odds Over What To Do About Pandhandlers

Along with the cash in his pocket, Stay said the program has established some routines in his week, and forced him to get up and make sure he’s ready to go when work starts in the morning.

And he said that, from the new stairs he helped build along the trails, to the painting he’s done, he’s now leaving a positive mark on the town, after years of feeling otherwise.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Michaela Stockwell, right, of Youth Services, hands out an envelope of cash to Tammy Elliot at the end of the work day.

"We can go up to Memorial Park now and we can look around and see all the things we’ve actually done,” Stay said. “It’s nice to be able to see positive things you’ve done and accomplished, you know?”

Brattleboro's town manager said that while the program has been successful, the town won't have the money to fully fund it next year.

Organizers hope to restart the program in the spring, and maybe to expand it - if there's funding available.

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

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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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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