Nonprofit leaders discuss shelter needs, emergency housing funding

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BENNINGTON — People who provide services for those who are homeless and housing-insecure agreed Friday that the community's need for a cold weather shelter is acute, and tied that need into a discussion on anticipated emergency housing funding changes.

The Bennington Continuum of Care, a group that meets monthly to discuss local housing issues and solutions, ultimately emerged from the 90-minute meeting with an agreement to put together subcommittees on these two issues that will report to the full committee monthly.

Chandler Poling, housing supervisor for Bennington Rutland Opportunity Council (BROC), who led the meeting, began with a moment of silence, remembering "those who struggle with housing insecurity and all of those whom we have lost."

Poling reminded those in the packed conference room at the state office building that the meeting was regularly scheduled, and was not called in response to "any of the local interest in this issue."

There has been heightened interest in homelessness in the area in response to the recent death of a homeless man named Thierry Huega, whose body was discovered under a bridge on Holden Street on Monday morning.

Throughout the discussion, committee members agreed that the community needs additional shelter capacity, but expressed concern about logistical challenges.

As long as six or seven years ago, a group of people were working together on putting together a warming shelter of sorts, which would rotate among different churches, explained Mary Gerisch, compliance officer with the Bennington Housing Authority.

"That process was impeded by certain regulations of the town," she said. "Zoning, fire codes — there were numerous issues."

Town Manager Stuart Hurd has said officials are looking for a suitable location for a warming shelter.

"The question that I have, and the thing that just stumps me, is, this group of people sitting around this table — we help people in crisis all the time," said Charlie Gingo, president of the board of directors of GBICS, pounding the table. "What in God's name is preventing us from doing something concrete so that what happened earlier this week with our friend who died under the bridge [doesn't happen again]?"

Gingo asked if something could be done through the housing authority, or Shires Housing, to set up a temporary warming shelter.

Gerisch replied that most of the housing authority's spaces are private apartments. The organization has a community room, but it's not large.

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One woman said the Red Cross can open shelters on a temporary basis, without worrying about zoning. Locally, the organization uses the middle school.

Lynn Mazza, a peer advocate counselor at Vermont Center for Independent Living, said organizers have looked at that — but funding is a challenge.

It's important to consider evidence, and look at how to end homelessness — not have "knee-jerk" reactions to specific circumstances with a patchwork solution, Poling said.

Even if the committee found the perfect place that day to build an overflow shelter, it takes a while to renovate it, staff it, and find the funding for it, Mazza said.

"I'm hearing different things from different parties that don't always reconcile," said Scott Winslow, new director of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services (GBICS). "I've heard stories of economic services, they weren't eligible, the homeless shelter is full, the motels — they have a voucher, but there's no room at the motels, [the state database] 2-1-1 said they can't do anything, call 911," he said. "I'm taking it as a given that the system, such as it is, is not working."

Changes in funding

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The committee also discussed planned changes in state funding for emergency housing.

In the state's fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1, the Department of Children and Families is proposing to end the General Assistance Temp/Emergency Housing program, known as the motel voucher program, and shift to a 100 percent community-based emergency housing/shelter system supported by homeless assistance grants administered by the Office of Economic Opportunity, according to a budget narrative from DCF.

The 2021 fiscal year would function as a transition year.

Currently, emergency housing for Vermonters experiencing homelessness is provided through two methods: community-based projects, like year-round shelters, seasonal shelters and emergency apartments and through motel vouchers.

In fiscal 2019, 2,503 households received emergency housing in motels through the General Assistance program.

"In general, we don't see it as a best practice," said Adam Sancic, field services director from the Agency of Human Services, of the motel voucher program. "I think folks around this table are in agreement with me around that."

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Changes could consist of building out shelter capacity, or also addressing the potential for low-barrier emergency housing, he said.

Committee members also agreed that the changeover is a "quick turnaround," although during the initial transition year, motel vouchers will still be a resource for emergency shelter.

According to documentation provided at the meeting, Bennington County's proposed allocations for emergency housing restructure for fiscal 2021 under this change would be $245,559. In comparison to 2019, that would be an increase of $44,552, according to the document.

The goal of the emergency housing restructure is to decrease reliance on motels, and ultimately, decrease homelessness, according to a Feb. 12 memorandum from Sarah Phillips, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

"We're all trying to move toward a more-long term response in a more fiscally responsible way," Poling said.

After some discussion, the committee agreed to have two separate subcommittees.

The Cold Weather Shelter Subcommittee's goal is to develop and implement a plan, working within local zoning and other regulations, to establish a low-barrier overnight emergency shelter for the Bennington area, according to an email from Poling on Friday seeking volunteers, per the meeting discussion.

The Motel Voucher Restructure Committee's immediate task will be to establish a plan for the transition period of the state's phase-out of the motel voucher program, and will follow guidance put forth by the state.

That sub-committee will also report to the full committee monthly.

The committees are going to end up having to fight for funding, so they'll need to do community outreach, Mazza said.

"[And] we're going to [have to] fight within the town because you're going to have folks in the town who say, not in my backyard," she said. "We've got a quest in front of us, and I really hope that the broader community gets engaged."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext .118.


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