There has been lots of publicity recently about the unfortunate conclusion of the transitional homeless shelter at Six Bank Street in North Bennington, mostly focusing on trouble that developed with funding and management and the last straw with the bed bug invasion, but there haven’t been any stories published recently about the great success of the Shelter over the past 15 years, and what it has meant to the community and to our church. I feel it is high time for everyone to hear "the whole story!"
When I first came to serve as pastor of the North Bennington Congregational Church in 1995, an immediate big challenge was before our church -- we had to decide about the use of the empty parsonage as a homeless shelter. The idea had already been presented by some concerned people in the Bennington area. It was a very big and important decision and it presented many difficult obstacles, not the least of which was opposition from friends and neighbors.
After many controversial meetings, and lots of listening to all sides and sifting through issues, our church prayerfully made the decision to go forward with plans for a transitional homeless shelter to be housed in our parsonage. This took great determination and perseverance and courage, I must say. We had to make major renovations to the building to meet local, state and federal requirements and stipulations, which of course, required a big investment of time, money and support on our part, as well as other organizations and faith communities in the area. But we persevered and are convinced it was the right decision for a good use of the building and to help our neighbors in need.
The process began officially in 1995 and after meeting many requirements and struggling through numerous delays, a certificate of occupancy was granted in 1998, and in March of 1999, the doors to Six Bank Street opened for sheltering homeless families, with a maximum number of residents allowed set at 13. For almost 15 years, a countless number of homeless families have been housed and helped by programs providing them with life skills and education and training to transition back into the community. The success of the program has been overwhelming. So many heart-warming stories have been told and we saw those stories unfold up close and personal.
There were times when our church was made aware of families who came with absolutely nothing, not even their own clothes, and our small church family would go right out and purchase what they needed. And lots of houses of worship and other organizations over the years contributed with a variety of resources and helpers to keep the shelter operating to full capacity most of time. This was the first homeless shelter in Bennington County and all the "nay-sayers" in the beginning were silenced by the overall success of the program, and the urgent and rising need for sheltering displaced persons in the community.
As with any program seeking to aid the most vulnerable in a community, there have been many tough times and financial challenges. But our small church in North Bennington truly believed in this effort and remained committed to this mission through it all. I have been immensely grateful for the faith and support, and for the determination to stay the course and keep it going. There were always maintenance issues, repair costs, and other obstacles, and it wasn’t easy for us, but we felt called to help provide the space and support that would work toward breaking the cycle of homelessness in our society.
We really think the wider community should know how much this shelter program has meant to an untold number of families in their time of need, to our faith family and all the others who made it possible. It has been like a child for us at the NBCC, a child we have helped to birth, nurture and care for and watch grow. And we saw this use of our parsonage as an expression of our ministry and mission, stewardship and faith. So, we haven’t taken its departure lightly. Sadly, this program in our parsonage has come to an end.
This past July, we were informed by the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless that, due to overwhelming debt, problems with management, and a new concept of centralizing the location of sheltering facilities in downtown Bennington, the shelter would be moving out of our parsonage. Of course, we were heart-broken and disappointed, to say the least. But, in spite of its unfortunate conclusion, we feel good about the goodness that came from its long run in our parsonage.
In the upcoming season, we all focus on gratitude and giving and sharing from our heart. So many gave heart and soul to this outreach endeavor, and we want to say "thank you" to everyone who supported the shelter program in our parsonage. We certainly will do what we can to continue our support, and hope and pray that the Coalition for the Homeless and all who join the continued effort to keep shelters open for the homeless in our area are able to provide strong leadership, adequate management and a clear vision to keep all levels of programming strong as a vital resource for the vulnerable and displaced in our community.
On behalf of the North Bennington Congregational Church, I would like to say we are most grateful that we had this opportunity to serve God and our neighborhood. We may be small in numbers, but we have a big heart and grow every day in faith and hope that we can always be a vital part of God’s love at work in the world.
There’s always more to a story to be heard. God’s blessings have a way of working behind the scenes and through even unlikely places, touching and renewing the most vulnerable. God’s Spirit can empower small things to become big, important things, and make a huge difference in people’s lives. And sometimes, we just have to show compassion and be there, and then let God’s Spirit do the rest. May all of us be determined to be a vital part of the whole story, something God alone can see.
The Rev. Penny Rich Smith is pastor of the North Bennington Congregational Church and the Second Congregational Church of Williamstown, Mass.