Homeless Shelter Finds More Need This Winter (Caledonian-Record)

Nearly Half Served This Year Were Children

By Robin Smith, Staff Writer

NEWPORT CITY -- Frank Loesch found himself without a place to live in St. Johnsbury.

Loesch didn't simply fall into debt. He lost his job, and couldn't take other jobs he found because he didn't have a vehicle.

So, he attended a truck driving school out of state. That didn't work out, and the school paid his way home. Unfortunately, he arrived back in St. Johnsbury without a job and without a home.

It was the day before Thanksgiving. Since then, he has been staying at the homeless shelter in Newport City, where he is working on seeking benefits as a veteran and getting back on his feet.

The shelter, called Northeast Kingdom Community Action Transitional Housing, has been a haven for him. In return, Loesch has volunteered at the shelter and at NEKCA's office down the street on Main Street and helped prepare the shelter for the open house Thursday afternoon.

"It's important as a vet to have help," Loesch said.

Ruthi Craft, case manager at the shelter, said Loesch also needed some other services to help him get back on his feet.

Things that others take for granted suddenly become difficult. Loesch needed a hair cut and Craft arranged that through donations.

A car, with the money to insure it and fill the gas tank, plus a hair cut can mean the difference in securing a job.

"A lot of times, if you are homeless you have nothing," Craft said.

Loesch is one of four people currently staying at the shelter. On Tuesday, there were nine people, filling the shelter, Craft said.

"When they are here, we work with landlords and agencies. We assist them financially what we can," she said.

As of Thursday, the shelter has helped 53 adults and 31 children in 2007, said Tin Barton-Caplin of NEKCA.

There are more people seeking a place to sleep this winter than usual, said Craft, who has managed the shelter for nine years.

Usually in winter, family members take in those who have lost their homes or apartments to help them through the cold months, she said. But this year the need is greater right now.

The shelter is the only one for adults and families in the Northeast Kingdom. St. Johnsbury has a teen shelter.

NEKCA also provides a teen center for youths who are either homeless or "couch-surfing" - staying with one friend one night and another the next, Barton-Caplin said.

Statewide, there are 3,000 Vermonters who are homeless annually, although many think it's more like 6,000, Barton-Caplin said.

Gov. Jim Douglas declared Dec. 17 to 23 Homeless Awareness Week and is adding funding to the state's general assistance fund.

It's hard for people from Caledonia County to receive shelter services in Newport. Without vehicles, they sometimes have a harder time to return to get homes in their own communities.

If the Newport shelter is full, Craft can look around at other shelters in the state for help.

Making Space For More

The shelter is in an older two-story building that features varnished wood molding around the doors and windows, reflecting its history. A claw foot tub is beautiful, but NEKCA is preparing to replace it with a free-standing shower more suitable for guests.

The shelter is geared to suit families, single parents and children and single adults. The five bedrooms range from a family room with a double bed and a bunk bed set, with enough room under a bay window for children to play or read in the corner, to several rooms that may house two people or a mom with child. There are portable cribs available, and are often in use.

The bedrooms that are empty for now have clean blankets, pillows, towels and sheets laid out for the next guest that needs them.

The visiting room off the entranceway is comfy, if a little spare, as is the living room upstairs with its two overstuffed couches, a love seat and chair next to a TV and VCR. Games for young and old are in the room. Craft says she always needs more.

The kitchen features all the essentials, plus a sturdy table and chairs that will last the shelter for awhile, Craft hopes.

"We need an exhaust fan badly," she said.

There's always a wish list of things that are really needed. The current list includes bureaus and dressers to replace those that are showing their age.

"Bureaus are hard to come by," Craft said.

This is the first time that the shelter has opened its doors to the public for tours. Barton-Caplin said that many people don't realize where the shelter is and hopes that more people will visit during future open houses.

He also is working to expand the number of beds available.

NEKCA also provides life skill training, job and home hunt assistance and referrals to the right state agencies.

Working Together

NEKCA is working closely with the state Department for Families and Children. Local director Rever Kennedy said that cooperation brings more services to the people who need it.

"I like the direction we are going right now," Craft said.

NEKCA also has excellent ties with several local churches, and benefits from volunteers and donations. Donations would go for things as essential and as simple as paying for a haircut, Craft said. At $14, a haircut can be well out of reach of someone who is struggling, she said.

Anyone interested in making donations to the shelter may call Craft at 802-334-0184.

To volunteer or to find out about other services, call Tin Barton-Caplin at 802-334-7316 or at tin@nekcavt.org.

He is also head of the Orleans Northern Essex Coalition to End Homelessness.