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Local homelessness a surprise to college students

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By MEGAN JAMES

VERGENNES — When Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes, asked Middlebury College student Alex Hall what surprised him the most about homelessness in Vermont, he answered, “That there was any.” 

Since last spring, Hall and about 20 Middlebury students, in groups of three or four at a time, have visited the Vergennes shelter once a week where they cook dinner and socialize. The residents, in turn, have begun to shatter the students’ stereotypes of homelessness.

“You think it only exists in urban areas. You think they’ve chosen not to work, that they’re lazy,” said student volunteer Andrew Haile. “But really they’re great people who’ve just had some bad breaks.”

Haile, who grew up in Hudson, Ohio, is partly responsible for the tremendous turnout of Middlebury volunteers. During a semester abroad in Paris last year, he was confronted daily, and for the first time, with people living on the streets. He and his friends found it difficult to walk by and ignore the homeless, he said, so they began talking to them, listening to their stories, taking them to McDonalds for a bite to eat.

Back in Middlebury, Haile, unable to shake the images of poverty he had seen in France, contacted the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) in Burlington. He gathered a few friends from Middlebury College and made the trip up north each weekend to cook lunch at the family shelter. But the kitchen was already teeming with volunteers and director Sally Ballin knew of a place where their efforts and enthusiasm would be more appreciated — the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes.

Three women run the shelter — Ready, shelter manager Diana Rule and resident manager Sue Delorme — and in the 26 years it has been open to the public, few community volunteers have gotten involved. Affiliated with the United Way of Addison County and Addison County Community Action Group (ACCAG), the shelter has received generous financial support over the years, but listening ears and helping hands have been harder to come by.

The women manage a household of about 17 people from all over Vermont, each of whom are guaranteed a bed and food for up to three weeks, before they have to apply for extensions. Some have lost their jobs, some are recovering from substance addiction or struggling with mental illness and some simply have bad credit or trouble with a landlord.

“We want to provide a safe and supportive environment where people can rebuild their lives,” Ready said. That might mean getting medication or starting counseling as well as finding a job and a place to live.

This is no easy task, according to Ready. It takes a well-established system of respect, and plenty of rules. Everyone has to be in by 10 p.m., keep their rooms tidy and shower at least every other day. No alcohol, drugs, weapons or violence of any kind are allowed. If a resident steals or uses too much foul language, the directors will ask them to leave.

The tension between residents, especially without the fresh perspective of outsiders from the community, is enough to exhaust everyone there. “Imagine a household of people all at the most vulnerable part of their lives,” Ready said. “It can be very difficult.”

But the students bring something invaluable to John Graham residents and directors: open minds, fresh faces and spaghetti and meatballs.

At dinner Wednesday night, student volunteer Meg McFadden enlisted the help of the shelter’s children to spread garlic butter on baguettes. “It’s so easy to move from dorm room to dining hall and never be confronted with these problems,” she said.

Like most of the volunteers, McFadden came to the shelter with preconceptions about homeless people, and was surprised to find when they all came together to cook dinner there was little that differentiated resident from student. She was on equal footing with the children when they played make-believe games and “Duck-Duck-Goose,” and their parents trusted her enough to share their stories.

 “The students are really fun,” a resident named Richard said. He has been living at the shelter since the middle of August, after losing his job as a cleaning supervisor at Killington Resort due to wrist and hand injuries. He wore out his welcome at camping sites in the Rutland area, and tried to live in the woods at Moosalamoo campground but was kicked out after he overstayed the two-week limit. He enjoyed the solitude of the forest, he said, but his arms kept cramping up, keeping him from being able to cook and perform other camping tasks.

Pam Howard, a resident at the John Graham Shelter for the past 38 days, said she loved the students’ visits. “It’s nice to come back at night and not have to wonder what you’re going to make for dinner,” she said.

A victim of domestic violence, Howard left her house because it wasn’t safe anymore. She had been working at the front desk of a hotel, and had slept at the hotel before learning about the Vergennes shelter through ACCAG, where she volunteered three days a week. She was initially hesitant to move into the shelter because she was uneasy about living in close quarters with strangers, but it quickly became a home, she said, and the other residents and student volunteers became a family.

According to Ready, 30 John Graham families found permanent housing and 15 people were employed in new jobs so far this year. “It’s not forever that they need a second chance,” Ready said. “They just need a leg up.”

Howard just signed a lease on an apartment in Middlebury. With a grant from the United Way Homeless Prevention Fund, she will be able to pay her first month’s rent while getting back on her feet and into a new job. But on Howard’s first night living alone, her friends at the shelter welcomed her back for one last dinner with the students. “It’s going to be hard to be by myself after living with 15 other people here,” she said. “But I’m ready to be on my own.”

McFadden and Haile, along with other Middlebury students, have organized a college symposium inspired by their time at the shelter, and in conjunction with their religious beliefs, titled “Challenging Complacency: Do Christians Care About Social Justice?” Scheduled for Nov. 9 to Nov. 17, speakers will include Shane Claiborne, a founding partner of The Simple Way, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in Kensington, North Philadelphia. Guitarist Lamont Hiebert, who helped launch an organization called Justice for Children International that works to prevent the sexual exploitation of children, will perform, and McFadden and Haile will encourage the college community to volunteer at places like the John Graham and Burlington shelters.

“Every one has their own idea about what it means to be homeless,” McFadden said, who came to John Graham last spring with lots of ideas, including the vague one that she wanted to help people. But it isn’t the ideas that keep her coming back, she insisted, it’s the dinner conversation and playing “Duck-Duck-Goose.”

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