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New beds, meals offered for area's homeless families

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By JOHN FLOWERS

ADDISON COUNTY — A group of Addison County clergy and nonprofits are teaming up to offer emergency shelter and food for a growing number of people expected to be homeless and hungry this winter.

Leaders of the Congregational Church of Middlebury confirmed on Monday a portion of the church’s historic Charter House on North Pleasant Street will be used to temporarily house as many as three homeless families this winter.

Meanwhile, John W. Graham Emergency Shelter Executive Director Elizabeth Ready announced two new plans to beef up its services to the homeless.

First, the John Graham Shelter will soon reconfigure one of its “family rooms” as an eight-person bunkroom to accommodate single people who would otherwise find themselves out in the cold during the upcoming winter months.

Second, according to Ready, the shelter has received permission to use an Addison County Community Trust home on Washington Street Extension in Middlebury as temporary lodging for one, perhaps two, area families who find themselves without shelter this winter.

“The idea is to have a place for families, as well as individuals,” Ready said.

She stressed the ultimate goal will be to make the Washington Street Extension housing transitional in nature. The ultimate goal, Ready said, will be to get homeless individuals the counseling, health services and employment information they need to quickly get them into jobs and permanent housing.

“You can’t just put people in a bed and expect things to improve,” Ready said.

The Washington Street Extension home has five bedrooms and should be ready for occupants soon, according to Ready. She would not disclose the exact location of the home in order to preserve the anonymity of the people who will reside there.

Ready credited the diverse collection of area clergy, as well as state and local human services agencies that have helped bring the new shelters to fruition. Many people have donated furnishings, funds and other resources to make sure the future occupants of the Charter House and Washington Street Extension home are immediately comfortable.

Parishioners of the Congregational Church of Middlebury have become well versed at helping the homeless. Three years ago, the church spearheaded a transitional housing project at 39 North Pleasant St. To date, that apartment building’s three two-bedroom units and two one-bedroom apartments have accommodated a combined total of 50 families.

“We have seen a 90-percent success rate in getting people their own housing,” said Doug Sinclair, an organizer of the church’s transitional housing program. “It is working.”

That success, in part, has prompted the congregation to offer up the east half of the Charter House for transitional housing this winter. Sinclair noted the large home — which once housed Elderly Services’ Project Independence program and almost became the new headquarters for the Gailer School — is now largely empty. The church is making some minor improvements to the building to make it fit for the new residents, who will move in early next month. The Vermont Agency of Human Services will refer families to the church. Two members of the church community will staff the Charter House full-time while it is being used as a shelter, according to Sinclair. An orientation session for volunteers is tentatively scheduled for this Saturday.

While there, the residents will have all the conveniences of home — a kitchen, showers, community room and bedrooms.

The church is not setting a specific deadline for stays in the Charter House, but it is not likely to become a long-term service. The Charter House is an asset the church has been looking to rent or sell to generate revenues for its operation and to help underwrite future potential capital projects.

Sinclair said the Charter House’s status as a shelter will be reviewed around the end of April.

FILLING BELLIES

Many local places of worship have joined the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s efforts not only in providing housing, but to fill people’s bellies at a time when their resources are stressed.

More than 40 organizations have supplied a long running series of Friday night community suppers held from 5 to 6:15 p.m. in the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s fellowship hall.

The organizations — with help from Middlebury-area grocers and the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center — will now launch a series of weekday lunches scheduled to debut with an abbreviated run during the upcoming holiday weeks on Monday, Dec. 22, from noon to 1 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Church on the Middlebury green. Organizer Ginny Heidke said in the short-term, St. Stephen’s will host the lunches again on Tuesday, Dec. 23; Monday, Dec. 29; and Tuesday, Dec. 30. The Congregational Church of Middlebury will take its turn hosting the lunches on Wednesday, Dec. 24, and Wednesday, Dec. 30.

The lunches will then settle into a regular four-day-a-week schedule beginning on Monday, Jan. 5. St. Stephen’s will host on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the Congregational Church will host on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Heidke said the lunches — which will include sandwiches, soup provided by the career center, fruit, vegetables, a dessert and a beverage — will continue through March and potentially into April.

“If it needs to keep going, we’ll find a way to keep it going,” Heidke said of the lunch series, which is open to anyone.

And it’s clear a lot of people are in need to a free meal. Heidke said the Friday suppers have been drawing upwards of 100 people, with a number of take-outs for people unable to make it to the church.

COUNTYWIDE NEED

Citizens, churches and businesses in Bristol, Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Ripton, Cornwall and other communities throughout Addison County are also banding together to provide help for the needy as the coldest nights approach.

Food has been flying off the shelves at the food shelf at St. Ambrose Church in Bristol. That’s also been the case at the Vergennes Congregational Church, which has spent $12,000 so far this year (thanks in large part to donations) on items for its food shelf. That’s up from $5,500 in all of 2007 and $2,500 in 2006.

Human services advocates this week were pleased to note that Addison County children are becoming very involved in this winter’s effort to help the homeless and hungry.

Many local schools are in the midst of food drives, amassing stockpiles of canned goods and other non-perishables.

The grade 5/6 Sunday School class at the United Church of Lincoln is in the midst of a “bucks for bunks” campaign. The children are trying to raise $650 to pay for a bunk set for the John Graham Shelter. The owners of Bub’s Barn in Vergennes have offered to match the $650 with a second bunk set, according to Sunday School teacher Lorraine Patterson.

The children have set up donation boxes at the church and at the Lincoln General Store, and they get a stark reminder of their mission every time they walk into their class. There, they have placed two life-size effigies of a grandmother and child next to a makeshift cardboard abode. They have named the two symbolic homeless people Gertrude and Gracie Joy.

“The need is there and we want to meet that need sooner rather than later,” Patterson said.

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