Winter shelters expect more homeless

The temperatures are dropping, and the state’s winter homeless shelters are preparing themselves for demand to rise for their services.

“You hear people say we have plenty of affordable housing, but we don’t have enough good-paying jobs,” says Lucie Fortier, director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center. “That’s why we’re anticipating our numbers, especially for women and families, will go up.”

The shelter — which made national news when hosts at the local First Baptist Church sold a Tiffany stained-glass window in 2010 to avoid closure — used to open around Thanksgiving to grant the homeless a temporary reprieve from sleeping in the woods, under bridges or along the banks of the nearby Connecticut River.

But the combination of a chillier environment and economy has prompted organizers to now open at the start of November and delay closure until as late as the end of April.

“Even though it’s the first of the month and people will get SSI (supplemental security income) checks, our numbers will be high,” Fortier says. “We are hearing about more families with children out there. It’s a major problem, and we are not going in the right direction.”

What the state calls “seasonal warming shelters” in church and community buildings are different from homeless organizations that operate year-round but can only house a small number of full-time residents. (Brattleboro’s 29-bed Morningside Shelter — the sole such permanent facility in southeastern Vermont — usually has a waiting list that equals its number of clients.)

The state doesn’t have an accurate count of winter facilities, as many open or close depending on the annual ability to find sponsors and space. But officials — reporting 1,556 homeless Vermonters in a 2014 survey, up 9.27 percent from last year — say the need for such support continues.

“If you have money in the stock market, the recovery has been pretty tangible, but if you are at a minimum-wage job or on a fixed benefit, it’s hard to see that,” says Angus Chaney, director of housing for the state Agency of Human Services and chairman of the Vermont Council on Homelessness. “The low incomes of many aren’t keeping pace with the cost of housing. When you add that with the loss of federal assistance, the combination is very bad for people on the edge.”

The Brattleboro shelter opened Sunday at 5 p.m. and offers anyone who obeys its rules a sleeping bag, pillow and safe place to stay until 7 a.m. This past winter, an average of two dozen people slept there nightly, while 180 different people visited at least once from Nov. 1 to May 1.

Experts used to cite addiction and mental health issues as the major causes of homelessness. Now they say the start can be as simple as not finding a job with enough salary and benefits to provide for such basics as housing, food and health insurance. (Some 45 percent of the state’s homeless have a disability, the latest survey found, while nearly one in four are children.)

“It’s just a combination of everything,” Fortier says. “Low-income Vermonters are struggling. Our food shelf has been crazy busy. We’re not seeing a slowdown.”

Chaney knows many feel mixed emotions with the seasonal return of shelters.

“On one hand, it can be troubling to acknowledge that we still rely so much on an emergency option,” he says. “On the other, they’re an entry point to more resources, and we’re encouraged to see the generous community spirit.”

The Vermont Agency of Human Services is working to offer support through more case management and financial aid.

“The challenge obviously is the scale,” Chaney says. “It’s hard for state programs to make up the gap we’ve faced on the federal level, but we’re working toward a longer-term housing solution. We need more subsidies and units. Shelters work if they’re the first step. We don’t want them to be the last step.”