HOWARD WEISS-TISMAN, Brattleboro Reformer
BRATTLEBORO -- An unusually high number of fires this season is putting extra stress on an already stressed support system for the homeless.
There were two fires in Windham County over the past week, in Putney and Brattleboro, and since the weather has gotten colder there have been at least six fires in Windham County. With each fire, families were left to find emergency shelter before they could even think about beginning to rebuild their lives.
This year the state started a new initiative to try to cut down on the amount of emergency housing aid that is used for non-emergency housing. At the end of the last legislative session, the amount of money for the emergency housing was cut, and while some of the money has since been restored, state agencies and housing advocates say it is getting harder to meet the needs of people who find themselves in a real emergency housing situation. Changes were also made to how long people were permitted to use the emergency aid for motels.
Morningside Shelter Executive Director Joshua Davis said the Legislature expected there to be less of a need after the long-term fund was put into place.
"We have not seen the drop we anticipated," Davis said. "The idea was to spend less and set a limit on how long people could stay in a motel, but even with that we have not seen a ton of savings."
Davis says the waiting list at Morningside has about 40 names on it, and with cuts coming from both the state and federal levels, a string of fires can put a strain on the system as a whole.
And when an affordable housing structure burns, as it did in the Elliot Street fire in October and during the Brooks House fire of 2011, there are fewer resources to draw from.
"We really have no wiggle room right now," Davis said. "It makes sense to evolve toward a more preventive approach but it is hard when we have fewer resources every year. And when people lose their homes through no fault of their own, like during a fire, we have to find the means to help."
Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, is a member of the Human Services Committee, and he said the Legislature is going to have some tough choices to face again next year when lawmakers return to Montpelier.
Legislators cut the emergency housing program last year so more resources could be put into long-term programs to help people find stable housing and also stay in the homes they have. The 2014 budget included $1.5 million in emergency housing assistance, down from about $3.4 million that was spent the previous year.
The Emergency Board, a legislative committee made of House and Senate leaders, met this summer and put another $2 million into the emergency housing fund. And just this month the Department for Children and Families said it was going to ask for $3.2 million next year for the emergency housing assistance.
"In the end we are going to spend more this year than we did last year on emergency housing," Mrowicki said. "Usually we can wait until January to make an adjustment like that, but the ongoing need is great."
Mrowicki says the state is likely going to try to continue to support both programs; the emergency housing and the long term housing support fund.
Last Sunday a fire destroyed a house on Town Line Road in Putney, leaving two adults and four children without a home, and then Wednesday an early morning fire left five people homeless when a Green Street home was damaged in a blaze.
The American Red Cross is usually the first organization to reach out to fire victims, providing emergency food and clothing and housing for three days.
Bruce Pollock, deputy chief response Officer for the Vermont and New Hampshire Upper Valley American Red Cross said the organization spends about $1,000 on a family of four after a fire. Pollock said across the region the number of fires the American Red Cross has responded to so far this year is about double the amount the group had at the same time last year.
He said it is hard to say what caused the recent string of fires, but the bottom line is that the local American Red Cross office has spent much more money this year than it did last year. So far, according to Pollock, the regional office has spent $28,000 only half way through the fiscal year, while $18,000 was spent in emergency disaster relief in all of fiscal year 2013.
"I wish we could say there was one thing to blame so we could address it, but it hasn’t been one thing," he said. "We will always be able to serve these people but we need to replace the fund so it is available the next time. This is a good time to remind people that we need the money to help the next family that loses everything."
Jamie Vigneau lost just about everything when her Putney house burned last Sunday.
Vigneau used to work at the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center and she said she was pretty used to knowing where to turn for services after helping others who found themselves homeless.
"I’m usually the one helping other people. I’ve never been on the receiving end like this," Vigneau said. "It’s amazing how many people have reached out to help us."
The state emergency housing money will keep her and her family in a motel for two weeks, where she will spend Christmas next week.
"It’s not the end of the world," she said. "No one got hurt. We are all safe and all together. One thing I learned at the Drop In Center was that it is never too late for a new start."
Reformer Christmas Stocking Chairwoman Betty Elwell says sometimes tracking down information on people affected by a fire can be challenging.
Every winter the Reformer Christmas Stocking supplies winter clothing to many children up to 15 years old who live in Windham County or in the New Hampshire towns along the Connecticut River. When there is a fire Elwell says, the organization can quickly outfit a child who lost everything in a fire.
"Losing a home to fire has to be one of the most devastating things that can happen to a family," Elwell said. "If the Christmas Stocking can help out the children who have bee affected it is one less thing the family has to think about during a very stressful time."
To donate to the American Red Cross send a check to 81 High St., Brattleboro, VT 05301.
To contact the Reformer Christmas Stocking after an emergency call Pat Smith at 802-254-2311, ext. 108 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.