Middlebury Shelters Grapple with Increased Demand, Facing Harsh Weather



Doug Sinclair at the Charter House Community Garden.


Doug Sinclair at the Charter House Community Garden.

MIDDLEBURY – Homelessness in Vermont is sometimes hidden within the state’s signature rolling green hills and idyllic pastures. Though the issue may not be as obvious or prevalent in Vermont as in urban centers across the country, it is nonetheless a serious and growing problem.

The Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness (VCEH) recently released a report showing that homelessness increased from 2016 to 2018. The winter months, in particular, can create life-threatening situations for those experiencing homelessness.

Between October and April, organizations across the state work to meet the increased demand for shelter caused by extreme cold weather. Doug Sinclair, co-director of Charter House Coalition, explained that “shelter life is not easy … so, in the warmer months, some people prefer to camp. Many official and nonofficial campgrounds have people living there who are homeless, even if it’s not apparent.”

Middlebury’s Charter House provides clients with a Winter Warming Shelter from Oct. 15 to April 15 annually. As reported by The Campus earlier this year, the shelter opened on Sept. 1. The need is especially pronounced by Dec. 1, according to Sinclair.

Peter Kellerman, co-director of the John Graham Housing & Services in Vergennes, Vt., noted a similar trend of increased need in the winter. But Kellerman continued, “we’re full year-round and maintain a waitlist. There’s a greater need during winter months, but the truth is, we’re always full.”

“Need seems to have grown every year over the last 10 years,” Sinclair observed. This may have to do with a variety of factors.

Firstly, there is a lack of employment opportunities, and the jobs that are available do not have adequate wages. The National Low Income Housing Coalition released a report last year showing that “both average renter wages and prevailing minimum wages are insufficient to afford modest rental apartments throughout the country.” According to the report, a federal minimum wage earner would have to work 122 hours per week for 52 weeks per year, in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

“A lot of retail minimum wage jobs are available [in Vermont], which don’t create enough of an income to sustain housing,” Kellerman explained. 

“Folks who could’ve afforded to live on their wages 15 years ago, have ended up in a situation where they just don’t have enough income to afford housing,” Sinclair said, echoing Kellerman.

Dawn Butterfield, treasurer for the VCEH, elaborated on the issue. “The cost of living in Vermont is pretty high; some scales rate it number 42 in affordability. Wages have not kept pace with the cost of living, so households with moderate incomes are falling farther and farther behind,” she stated.

These problems are compounded by a severe shortage of affordable housing. “There is a less than 1 percent vacancy rate for affordable housing in Addison County,” Sinclair noted. “Someone can have a [housing] voucher to help them with rent, but can’t find an apartment because it’s not there, so they lose the voucher.” Butterfield agreed that “truly affordable housing is rarely found.”

In Addison County, a perfect storm of events contributed to this shortage leaving many experiencing homelessness in vulnerable positions. Previously,  three motels accepted housing vouchers. One however — The Blue Spruce Motel – was destroyed in a fire in 2017 , and another, Greystone, now Middlebury Sweets Motel, was sold to “folks who are less inclined to receive people with vouchers,” as characterized by Kellerman. 

This left just one, the Sugarhouse, that according to Kellerman, also holds some “reticence.” Those experiencing homelessness can have “complex service needs, such as mental illness or addiction, so the experience for the proprietor is not always great,” he continued.

Those who are lucky enough to find affordable housing may still face a multitude of challenges in acquiring and retaining the housing. Landlords may be reluctant to “Landlords, both public and private, are loathe to take chances on people who have a poor rental history whether because of payment issues, violence, or crime. That’s understandable, of course, but it does make it challenging to find housing for people, even when they have made changes in their lives that might make them ‘better’ tenants,” Butterfield said.

People experiencing homelessness are also more likely to suffer from severe mental illness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. “You have to think about domestic violence victims, addiction, mental illness, and people who have experienced extreme trauma,” Kellerman said. “There are a lot of layers to homelessness and how people get affected.” 

Butterfield also mentioned the impact of the opioid crisis on increased homelessness. People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately affected by substance abuse and overdose, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Additionally, the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 identified stable housing as a critical part of treatment and recovery. These factors left homeless populations across the nation very much at risk to be impacted by the opioid crisis

Finally, Kellerman spoke about the effect of the changing political landscape. “People have been staying with us longer and longer. There is fear [on the part of the clients], because much of the human services funding we rely on has been threatened.”

Kellerman also noted that state agencies are taking a conservative approach following the government shutdown. “They want to make sure they’ll be able to sustain what’s already active, and don’t want to hand out too much,” he said. “But I think it’s worth taking a chance… because people are suffering.”

In order to address this daunting problem, organizations in each county of Vermont work together on a process called Coordinated Entry. Developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the process is intended to “make sure the most vulnerable among us are housed the quickest,” explained Jan Demers, Executive Director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO).

Organizations find available housing, use a vulnerability assessment to look at who is most in need of housing, and then assess what those people need to get into the housing, Demers elaborated. “Even though there may be more households in need, the process of being referred by one of multiple community partners and assessed for level and type of housing need, means we are able to more quickly get people the help they need,” Butterfield said.

Despite the efforts of organizations such as CVOEO, VCEH and shelters, more support is needed to tackle the problem of homelessness in Vermont. For example, Kellerman discussed the importance of ongoing support for formerly homeless people when they are housed.

“When they acquire housing, there’s a new set of stressors, and what had them at risk in the first place doesn’t disappear that quickly. After people are safely housed, ongoing outreach is essential,” he said.

Demers agreed, and pointed out that “funding is no longer there for agencies like CVOEO, and other social service agencies, that used to get funding for supportive services for people who are recently housed.” She agreed that being able to follow people, especially through their first year being housed, would be beneficial.

Butterfield brought up multiple other points including the creation of more “truly affordable housing for households with limited incomes and more money to subsidize rents. He went on to describe the importance of supporting case management for households with multiple barriers to obtaining and retaining housing, as well as more incentives like risk pools so landlords are more willing to take chances on challenging tenants.

Community can also be important in supporting people experiencing homelessness. “If you’re homeless, you feel disenfranchised. You don’t feel part of the community,” Sinclair said.

Some of the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness can derive from judgment or misunderstanding of their circumstances. “People think that ‘homeless people’ are somehow to blame for their misfortune, and so they don’t ‘deserve’ to be helped,” Butterfield noted. In Kellerman’s words: “It’s not what’s wrong with them, it’s what’s happened to them.”

Demers emphasized the importance of compassion and considering people as individuals. “No matter if you are at Middlebury College, walking around the campus, there are people on your grounds who are in circumstances where there is trauma and great difficulty. Being open to knowing who those people are and what their needs are is essential,” Demers said.

To contact or donate to Charter House Coalition: www.charterhousecoalition.org