Local shelters fill up as temperatures dip

December 9, 2021

By John Flowers, Addison Independent

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County’s two emergency homeless shelters are already full and carrying waiting lists as bone-chilling temperatures, sleet and snow once again take center stage in the Champlain Valley.

The Charter House Coalition (CHC) Emergency Shelter at 27 North Pleasant St. in Middlebury has already reached its max of 24 guests, while another 28 individuals are waiting in the wings in hopes of securing a spot, according to Heidi Lacey, the shelter’s top administrator.

Meanwhile, the eight shelter units at John Graham Housing & Services in Vergennes are also full, serving a total of 22 adults and children, according to Executive Director Susan Whitmore.

Like Lacey, Whitmore has noted a recent surge in folks seeking to come in from the weather. Some are people who no longer qualify for long-term, pandemic-related residency at area hotels and motels, according to Whitmore.

“I think it has a lot to do with it getting colder, and they’re not able to camp outside anymore,” she said. “And there’s not a lot of affordable housing.”

In large part due to the pandemic, the CHC shelter continues to serve only individuals, while referring families to the John Graham shelter and state programs for help. The state tightened eligibility standards for individuals and families seeking vouchers for hotel and motel stays.

As of late last week, Middlebury-area motels and hotels had set aside 36 rooms that were accommodating 45 adults and 20 children, according to Lacey, who added the number of available rooms has dwindled.

“I think we’re more back to ‘normal’ now,” she said. “Hotels don’t find themselves needing as much of that sort of income now.”

Most of the John Graham and CHC shelter guests have Addison County ties, officials said. Some have had a long history of difficulties nailing down local accommodations. Some have just become homeless for the first time. Others have spent the summer and fall living outdoors in tents or cars, something that’s increasingly difficult to do as the thermometer dips below freezing.

Both the county’s emergency shelters invested significant resources in renovations and equipment aimed at minimizing the spread of COVID-19 among guests. The upgrades have ranged from Plexiglas barriers to ventilation systems that suck air out of guest sleeping areas.

Each shelter requires that masks be worn in indoor common areas, though congregate dining is allowed if guests social distance. Regular cleaning, monitoring of temperatures and daily wellness checks are still part of the daily ritual.

The CHC shelter continues to maintain an isolation room for guests who might have come into contact with COVID. Lacey said only two guests have spent time in that room since July and neither one ended up having the virus.

Only one of the CHC’s current 24 guests is unvaccinated by choice.

“It’s about education,” Lacey said. “Shelters can’t deny entry to a guest who’s not vaccinated. We are allowed to ask, and we do. If they’re not (vaccinated), it’s about discussion, sharing information, talking about risks and their concerns.”

Guests are encouraged to become vaccinated. Lacey said some of the homeless people she’s encountered aren’t vaccinated simply because they haven’t had a primary care physician to provide encouragement.

“That’s one of the first things we offer during case management, is connecting them to health services,” she said. “Once people understand the availability and that there’s no cost, we’ve really not had anyone who’s declined (a shot), except for the one person.”

Once sheltered, guests work with case managers to access state and local support services and to get them steered toward permanent housing. Local advocates are already on record lamenting the shortage of affordable housing in Addison County and statewide. The majority of both the CHC and John Graham guests are employed at least part-time, but don’t make sufficient wages to afford a market-rate apartment.

“We have many people we’re working with right now who have (an affordable housing) voucher, but can’t find an apartment yet,” Whitmore said. “We spend a lot of time talking to landlords and people in the community about the advantages of renting to people who have a housing voucher. The beauty of it is, that tenant comes with built-in supports for them being a good tenant. So the landlords who work with us know that they get good tenants, and if there are any problems, we help.”

With few affordable homes now in play, local advocates want to make sure shelter guests don’t miss opportunities when they come up.

“Our job in social services is to prepare people for the moment that (housing) comes,” Lacey said. “We continuously meet with them on a regular basis to create housing and sustainability plans so as opportunities become available, they’re able to respond quickly.”

That’s why shelter guests are encouraged to follow a path of self-improvement.

“They’re working on things like training, résumés, connecting with health care,” Lacey said. “They are doing a lot of work breaking down barriers to sustainable housing, such as coming up with landlord references, filling out housing applications, and mending bridges (with past landlords).”

Optional wellness and education programs are increasingly being offered at the CHC shelter, Lacey noted. Activities include literacy, meditation, Alcoholics Anonymous support groups and even game nights.

Guests are also expected to help maintain the shelter, whether it be sweeping floors, and wiping off surfaces or clearing tables when needed.

Many residents try hard to wean themselves from shelter dependency, but the journey toward self-sufficiency can be long and bumpy, officials noted. For that reason, those who graduate to subsidized housing continue to receive help from CHC and John Graham.

“This isn’t just about finding housing; it’s housing retention,” Whitmore said. “We’re working with people are in affordable housing, who work with our service coordinators in order to remain in the housing they have.”

Both shelters could use donations of time and money.

Learn how to help the Charter House Coalition at chcvt.org.

CHC is looking for volunteers, matching them with tasks that fit their skills and comfort level. Delivering meals, organizing supplies and prepping food are among the chores that could benefit from more hands.

But perhaps just as important, Lacey wants to see more community members interacting with shelter staff and residents — in a safe, socially distanced way. Set up a time to share a meal or activity.

“I don’t want (volunteering) to be just about hard labor,” Lacey said with a smile. “What I want most of all is a sense of community.”