BENNINGTON — The Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless has finalized the purchase on a Main Street property it hopes will increase its capacity to shelter people.
The property, located at 966 Main Street, will initially have six beds, and the group has permission from the town to eventually have as many as 17, said Coalition Executive Director Chris Oldham. To prepare, the coalition will be hiring and training new staff members in the coming months.
The building still needs to be brought up to code, and most of September and October will be spent retrofitting the inside and installing smoke detectors and sprinklers. Oldham said the Coalition's goal had been the have the home operating before the first snowfall, and with a targeted opening date of Nov. 1, he feels it's on track to meet that goal.
Now that the property has been purchased, the group is expected to move out of its property at 250 North Street, which Oldham says is not up to code or handicap accessible. When the organization sought an estimate on what it would cost to renovate that property, it was told $430,000. "It makes sense for us to make this move," said Oldham.
He said that the Coalition is seeking to address the underlying issues of homelessness, and that this facility will allow it to better do that. "We're not just a bed," he said, "This is an alternative solution, and a move effective solution, to motel vouchers. Our goal is to break the cycle of homelessness."
The Vermont Department of Children and Families provides motel vouchers to those who meet eligibility requirements. According to DCF, it offers, "emergency housing assistance to applicants who meet basic eligibility criteria under one of two categories: 1) "catastrophic" for a benefit up to 84 days in a 12 month period or 2) "vulnerable" for a benefit up to 28 days in a 12 month period. To be eligible under the "catastrophic" category, clients must have become homeless due to circumstances such as natural disaster, constructive eviction, court ordered eviction over which the applicant had no control, death of a spouse or minor child, or domestic violence. To be eligible under the "vulnerable" category, an applicant must have a dependent under the age of 6, be age 65 or older, be in receipt of (Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance), or be in the third trimester of pregnancy. Applicants under the "vulnerable" category cannot have caused their own loss of housing within the last six months."
However, a "cold weather exemption" also applies, in which restrictions on who can receive motel vouchers are relaxed. Those conditions occur, according to DCF, "either 1) temperatures or wind chills less than 20 degrees Fahrenheit or 2) temperatures less than 32 degrees Fahrenheit with a higher than 50 percent chance of precipitation reported."
To the end of addressing the root causes of homelessness, rather than acting as a band-aid fix, the coalition offers programs to everyone who takes advantage of their services. The programs have been expanded to include a cooking and nutrition program; a credit repair and counseling program, which is offered through a partnership with the Vermont State Employees Credit Union and teaches participants how to budget and prepare for the future; and job readiness program that goes over resume drafting and interview skills. The coalition also will be launching a scholarship fund for those who want to go back to school.
Oldham heard many potential concerns about the facilities from neighbors during the review process at the Development Review Board, and has reached out to neighbors to assuage their fears. "Overall," he said, "Support in the neighborhood has been great."
"We're staffed 24 hours a day," he said, "we have strict rules in place with success in mind, and we mandate involvement in our programs. In all of our other properties throughout Bennington, we practice that same objective. We're good neighbors."
"We're very serious about making sure that we're adding to a community, not taking away," he said.
"The coalition is thrilled to be able to start a new chapter," said Oldham, "and do a better job tackling the issues the town faces in regards to homelessness."
— Contact Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.