Brattleboro forum centers on the homeless in the community

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BRATTLEBORO >> "Collaboration can take a problem and work it into smaller, more manageable pieces" said Josh Davis, Executive Director of Groundworks Collaborative, stressing the need for local organizations to work together. "We are set up in a silo-ed system but to achieve our vision we have to find ways to work together. This presents us challenges as well as opportunities."

Davis then gave the example of the Brattleboro Retreat clinician who spends 16 hours per week at the Groundworks shelter. But setting that up was challenging, given the different ways that each organization approaches things.

Collaboration between organizations was a theme revisited throughout Wednesday night's discussion on homelessness in Brattleboro, and how the community can continue to work with its homeless members to improve their situation.

A mix of community leaders that represented local organizations, mental health care, law enforcement and the homeless perspective were all present for a public forum on homelessness on Wednesday night at the River Garden, hosted by the Commons, the Groundworks Collaborative and the Change Works Committee.

The panel included Kurt White, Executive Director of Ambulatory Services at the Brattleboro Retreat, Michelle Simpson-Seigel, President of the Board of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald, Joshua Davis, and Larry Shaida, a man who was formerly homeless.

The forums are being held every three months as a way to promote dialogue on the issue between all members of the Brattleboro community, and the public are invited to come listen and participate with their own questions.

White shared from the perspective of the mental health care, and elaborated on the error of addressing "homelessness" as a root problem. "Homelessness is clearly the symptom of the problem. It is the downstream result of systematic lack of opportunity, and large-scale drug operations in other countries."

White also commented on the failure of the health care system to incentivize health through what he called "piece-meal" approaches, where health care providers are paid for each service they provide. He also mentioned acute barriers to health that the homeless face, and a need to prioritize housing as a basic human right, and for the government to fund it as such.

Often, White said, there are people who are in positions of tenuous housing, and mental illness compounds that problem, leading to homelessness. Public housing, with waiting lists that can take years, are not a realistic option for dealing with homelessness at present, White said. Mental illness makes it exponentially more difficult for a person to hold down a job, he said, or find housing in an area where it is already scarce. In a rural area like Vermont, people must overcome barriers to health care access, such as finding transportation to receive care, and accessing social services.

White also brought up the difficulty of reintegrating into society after being hospitalized for mental illness. Despite the best efforts of social workers, it can be difficult for patients to get back on their feet again once they are discharged, as they may not be able to return to unhealthy places they lived in before.

Simpson-Siegel spoke on the need for both compassion and boundaries between business owners and patrons, including those construed as homeless. "We all know that there is no one story or singular face of homelessness."

Simpson-Siegel noted that there seems to exist a double standard between those who may appear homeless, and the more affluent frequenters of a business. She expressed that there was a selective enforcement of rules, such as those prohibiting loitering. She illustrated this with an example: "You may have a family enjoying ice cream on a stoop, and that's viewed as a nice time." However, she said, if there is an individual who appears homeless, though they may not be, sitting on the stoop is deeming "loitering." Such behavior — though probably an ordinance violation — was compared to jaywalking or public profanity, to emphasize that many citizens commit such acts but don't receive harsh treatment.

"I think we as a community, use the term 'the Homeless' too loosely when it comes to people hanging out in town. Many are residents in town, and the homeless are members of our community" Simpson-Siegel said.

Davis mirrored this sentiment and discussed the increasing difficulty of unpacking the term "homelessness," which he said is "Rural, it's unseen, it's people in motels, camping out, doubled up in couches, sleeping in their car, people in the gaps, it's chronic, it's long- or short-term. It's complicated by mental health and substance abuse. It's exacerbated by high rental rates and low wages and low vacancy rates in this community. It's all these things rolled into one."

He reiterated the need for many organizations like health care providers, social services, the police, and local citizens to work together to deal with the complicated nature of the problem.

The discussion panel included Larry Shaida, who was formerly homeless, and success story of Groundworks' job program, shared about the difficulties of living life exposed to the elements, and facing the disrespect of others.

"When I was out there being homeless for about 15 years, I didn't know where to go, who to turn to. Then I got hooked up with Groundworks, and my case manager told me to have patience. That patience paid off after a while because I have an apartment now."

Fitzgerald discussed the approach his department takes toward the homeless members of our community, an approach more measured than in the past. "The Brattleboro Police department aims to give people a helping hand, not a criminal record. That's pretty much our philosophy and vision in a nutshell."

Fitzgerald said that the previous strategy, of enforcing statutes and ordinances was a waste of resources, and accomplished nothing for the long term. Telling a person sleeping on a bench to move on only resulted in finding them in another spot a few hours later. That approach has been replaced with a focus on building mutual respect between the police and homeless people.

"Just because you're on a bench or in a cardboard box, the police department has no right to go up there and look in your box or backpack. None whatsoever. You're still entitled to every right and you will be treated as such."

He continued, citing the 8th Amendment — the right to no cruel or unusual punishment and fines. "I challenge anyone in this room to stand for eight hours without being allowed to sit down or use the bathroom. But yet we're expecting people to do that. It's unconstitutional."

Fitzgerald mentioned that homeless or not, all citizens retain their constitutional rights. Additionally, the police force is now much more familiar with organizations which serve the homeless, and are able to help people access those services. He encouraged people to become more educated about homelessness, and ways that they can better understand the issue and people involved.

The floor was opened to the public, which included a discussion of the privatization of formerly private spaces, like Harmony Place or the River Garden, and the suggestion of a jobs corps in Brattleboro for the unemployed.

Anthony Burdo is a Brattleboro native and will be studying medicine at the University of Kentucky this fall.


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