After doubling people served, Coalition must still do more, says director

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BENNINGTON — In the first year since moving into its Main Street shelter, the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless has more than doubled the number of people it served.

From January 2015 to January 2016, the coalition helped 139 between its North Street shelter for individuals and Thatcher House, its shelter for families on the corner of Pleasant and Park streets. From when the Main Street Shelter opened in January of last year to today, they have served 279 people, said Executive Director Chris Oldham.

Part of this increase is due to an increase in beds from the former shelter on North Street, which had six beds, and the new Main Street location, which has 16. Indeed, North Street housed 103 in the year prior to its closing, while the Main Street shelter housed 196 in the year since. However, in the same time period, the number of people served at Thatcher House increased from 36 to 83, without an increase in beds. Oldham attributed this increase to an increase in turnover rate. He said that 80 percent of the people they have served have since moved into stable or transitional housing.

Of the 196 served at the Main Street location, 130 were men and 66 were women, 33 were veterans, 47 were 55 years or older, and 36 were identified as having substance abuse issues. "There's a stigma placed on homeless people," said Oldham. "We're serving veterans, we're serving people who are fleeing domestic violence situations, we're serving the elderly, we're serving children. It's not just the, quote, 'drunks and druggies.'"

The coalition's goal is to have stays at the shelters last 90-120 days, but Oldham admitted that some may take longer. "If someone is coming in with zero income, starting from scratch, it's going to take a little bit longer to get them back on their feet," he said.

In addition to having more beds for those in need, the new shelter is fully accessible to those with disabilities, something that the old shelter lacked. The new location's beds are also a little more private, while the old sleeping space was made up of cots dragged into the common area. "Before, they weren't staying in a dignified space," he said.

Oldham said that there is still need in the community that is not being met, but that the situation has definitely improved in the three years he has been with the organization. At the previous location, he said, they had to turn away six to 11 people every night during the coldest months. "As you can imagine, especially this time of year, there was a great demand for shelter beds," he said. "We were turning people away every night... It's the hardest thing we have to do here."

"We still have to turn people away," he acknowledged. "We know that they're still out there. We know that there are camps... We're better meeting the need, but we have so much more work to do."

Even if space is available, sometimes people still need to be turned away. Becoming a resident at one of the coalition's shelters also comes with a responsibility to not take drugs and to participate in the counseling and life-skills programs that the organization provides, which include financial literacy and employment readiness. Oldham, who described the program as a hand-up rather than a hand-out, said that some are unwilling to participate under those circumstances.

"We'll bend over backwards for you, as long as you're willing to put in the work," he said. "Our goal is self-sufficiency. We give them the tools they need."

While the organization has come a long way in the last three years, with a new home, new director, and new board, there is more growth on the horizon. "Our goal is to expand," he said. "We have to provide more beds, we have to provide more services to help people get back on the feet and into their own place. We're doing that on a very limited budget." He added that his biggest fear is waking up and learning that a homeless person in Bennington was found dead under a bridge because they didn't have a place to stay. "People don't understand the urgency," he said.

The organization's next priority is to expand Thatcher House. As a more long-term goal, they hope to open a warming shelter, such as exists in many other communities, where people can come in and simply have a place to keep warm during the night, without the requirements of staying in one of the shelters. While the state's cold weather exception program relaxes requirements for temporary housing when temperatures drop below specified levels, such as from Tuesday to Thursday of this week, but motel vouchers are costly and conditions can be dangerous even if the exception isn't declared.

But for the non-profit organization, which has an annual budget of about $500,000, finding funding is always an issue. They have 10 employees, both full- and part-time, including some former residents. "They are a success story, and they know exactly the struggles of being homeless," said Oldham.

To learn more about the coalition and the work they are doing, visit their website at bcch-vt.org or follow them on Facebook. You can reach them by phone at 802-442-2424.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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