KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- With nighttime temperatures being in the single digits until at least Sunday, normal requirements for temporary hotel lodgings for the homeless have been waived, and a warming shelter run by the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless could use some more volunteers.
Maryann St. John, county supervisor for community services with BROC-Community Action in Southern Vermont, said her agency forwards applications for the state’s General Assistance Housing Program to the Agency of Human Services. Those who are approved can receive hotel vouchers; however, the normal criteria is one must be homeless, elderly, disabled, or have children. If a person has some resources they are also expected to contribute something to the cost, said St. John.
"During extreme cold, there is an exemption to this," St. John said. The Department of Human Services monitors the National Weather Service’s forecasts and when the temperature is expected to dip below 32 degrees at night and there is a 50 percent chance or more of precipitation, a cold weather exemption goes into effect. It also goes into effect when nighttime temperatures go below 20 degrees, precipitation or not.
"We have seen an influx of people come in, and we are able to house them because of that cold weather exemption," St. John said. About 12 people who would not otherwise qualify for the general housing assistance have been given hotel room vouchers and can stay until at least Sunday, when the Department of Human Services will have to once again look at the weather forecast for the next week.
According to NWS, the nighttime lows for Bennington are expected to be under 10 degrees until Sunday, rising to 21 degrees Monday night. There is also a chance of snow Friday and Saturday.
St. John said the cold weather exemption is not new, but last year it was never called into effect given the mild temperatures. She said BROC does not administer the program and its role is limited to forwarding applications. She said churches and the homeless coalition refer people to BROC and BROC identifies people in need when they seek its own services.
She said in general, able-bodied single people do not qualify for the housing program but currently there is a mix of individuals, couples, and small families making use of it because of the cold. Attempts are also made to find them another place to stay, but space is limited.
Kendy Skidmore, executive director for the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless, said the coalition’s warming shelter is at 250 North Street. She said it is full, with six people there, and has been opened during the daylight hours. Before it only opened at night, she said, and even before the cold weather wave came through it was filled. She said the building is running at half capacity because the Development Review Board required a sprinkler system and other fire safety measures to be taken which have yet to be done.
Skidmore said the coalition could use more volunteers to staff the shelter. Two people have to be on at night and out of the pool of volunteers available some can only work a few nights a week or month.