By JOHN FLOWERS
VERGENNES — Local advocates for the homeless are searching for one or more “overflow” shelters to accommodate what they believe could be a record number of people out in the cold in Addison County this winter.
The overflow shelter(s) are part of an emergency response plan for homelessness that leaders of the John Graham Emergency Shelter are putting together for the coming months, when people now living in cars and tents must find warmer quarters.
Meanwhile, advocates in other Vermont counties are also working on their own emergency response plans, which they hope will garner some state funding when Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Committee convenes next month.
The state’s shelters have already seen a increase of 10 to 20 percent in clients compared to the same time last year, according to Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the John Graham Emergency Shelter on Vergennes.
The helpline Vermont 2-1-1 received approximately 2,400 calls last month from people inquiring about food, lodging and fuel, Ready noted.
“Basically, there is a sense that we don’t known what’s going to happen this winter,” Ready said.
Ready gives the John Graham Shelter board regular updates on the numbers of people seeking services. Recent updates indicate that the shelter has been unable to meet demand, even with a new transitional housing project on East Street (see story, Page 1A).
The John Graham shelter current refers homeless people it cannot accommodate to other shelters in Chittenden or Rutland counties. In some cases, overflow clients are put up in area motels where they unfortunately don’t have access to support services.
“When we started reporting there were five or six families a week we couldn’t take, the board started to say ‘This is not OK; what are we going to do in December when this is happening in September?’” Ready said. “The board said, ‘We want to have an emergency plan.’”
That’s when shelter leaders began to meet with church leaders and other groups and individuals who might want to host some beds for homeless people when facilities in Vergennes are full.
Some groups and individuals are now carefully weighing the request.
“We have had a fantastic response and a lot of concern,” Ready said. “We have a couple of possible sites where we would be able to take families for the very coldest nights. The idea is, it’s not permanent. Nobody thinks we should have more (permanent) shelters. We’re not building more shelters.”
Ideally, Ready said a shelter staff person would be assigned to the overflow shelter(s) to make sure clients are connected to services and quickly transitioned into more long-term lodging situations.
“We are working out the details,” said Ready, who hopes to have the overflow shelters identified by next month.
Other communities have already been forced to make plans for an overflow of clients.
Melinda Bussino is executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop-in Center. The center operates a food shelf and the 19-bed Morningside Shelter.
Bussino said Morningside proved unable to meet demand last winter, prompting a collaboration with local church groups to establish an overflow shelter at the First Baptist Church Hall in town. As many as 17 individuals in one night slept on bedrolls on the floor of the church and received support services from the Drop-in Center during the day, according to Bussino.
“We served 49 unduplicated homeless people, from 18 to 71 years old,” Bussino recalled. Of those clients, one-third held college degrees, while half were employed.
Demand is expected to be even greater this year, so the overflow shelter in Brattleboro will again open its doors on Dec. 1. Morningside already has more people seeking service than beds available.
“If (the overflow shelter) were open tonight, we have 51 people who would potentially come in,” Bussino said. “That’s how bad it’s gotten this year.”
She added the extent of homelessness in the Brattleboro area is the worst she has seen it in her 40 years in the anti-poverty field.
“It’s the middle class we are seeing come in right now,” Bussino said. “It’s the people who used to donate.”
John Graham shelter board members are hoping the state will put up some additional resources for overflow shelters. They noted the state has a $60 million rainy day fund and $16 million for human services caseload management.
Sen. President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Putney, said he is optimistic the Joint Fiscal Committee will come up with some money. He made an initial request for $500,000. The committee, according to Shumlin, has agreed to the concept that more money is needed to address the plight of the homeless, but wants to get a firmer grip on exactly how much money should be spent to deal with the problem.
“Vermonters are facing financial pain that was unimaginable only three years ago,” Shumlin said. “The result is, we have a new class of Vermonters joining the ranks of the homeless.
“We can’t just turn our heads and pretend this crisis doesn’t exist,” he added.