Programs for the homeless are a lifesaver


I lived for a while in the condo complex next door to the Morningside Shelter. The kids from the shelter and the kids in the complex played together on the grounds. One winter day I was busybodying at the edge of the ice coated sump as 2 or 3 little boys were sledding down the hill and out onto the ice.

I asked them if they thought that was safe and did their parents know what they were doing? One of the crew responded, "Lady, we are boys. This what boys do." I was so tickled with his statement and the confidence it demonstrated, and have thought about it many times since. Put in my place, I moved on (even if they went through the ice, the water was only 2 feet deep).

I am not a native Vermonter. I am one of those dreaded transplanted flatlanders. Yet I love the New England/Yankee ethic. I respect the individualistic, wry, eccentric mindset that comes naturally here. The down side of all that independence here is a willingness sometimes to believe that gumption can solve any problem. Bad things can happen to good people. Most of the homeless did not end up that way because they were feckless. Usually it is some combination of outside forces (the downturn in the economy, illness of the wage earner, job loss, few jobs around to replace a lost one, the breakdown of a vehicle so getting to work becomes impossible .... on and on and on). These "perfect storms" of circumstances are disasters awaiting all of us just around the next bend of life. We are tempting fate if we look down our noses at people who are deep in a mess and struggling to survive. The various housing programs in our community frequently step in to help. They do not advertise their involvement. If you have been burned out of your home you might end up in a Windham & Windsor Housing Trust apartment. A new house might be built by you and a group of Habitat for Humanity volunteers. If both your parents’ jobs got terminated and you cannot meet your rent, you might end up at Morningside Shelter for a period of time, and then in a Brattleboro Housing Authority apartment. If you have been in these jams, then you probably know something about the programs available to help you get back on your feet. The good news is that these programs exist as a community safety net. The bad news is that so few people seem to know or fully understand how they work, and sometimes through lack of knowledge, resent their existence.

Morningside House, Inc. , a non-profit 501 (c)(3) organization with a volunteer Board of Directors was founded 35 years ago in 1979 by a group of local government and church leaders. It is the only year-round homeless shelter in southeastern Vermont. The 1840s farmhouse just south of downtown Brattleboro off Vernon Road had previously been a home for developmentally challenged adults. Presumably, it had once been the farmhouse for the land upon which the Morningside Commons Condominiums were built. I wish I could find someone to tell me about the house and the land up until 1974 and how all this area was developed.

Morningside Shelter last year was "home" to over 120 different people, a third of whom were children. The house has 29 beds including 4 family rooms. If you have never been inside, it is a warm and cozy beehive of activity. The ground floor is mostly kitchen, dining and living space (with a kiddie corner sporting an easel and crayons, toys and games and a dress up box), as well as office space for the staff. Speaking of staff - Morningside is much more than a house full of beds. Over the past 35 years staff have developed the knowledge, systems, and institutional capacity to successfully assist the residents to develop the resources to move beyond the shelter into stable housing and to maintain it. This, of course, was capacity hard won over time, alliances with local services and housing organizations like Brattleboro Housing Authority and Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, utilizing voucher programs (like Section 8), family supportive intensive case management, Vocational Rehab alliances and other resources. Morningside’s annual budget has topped $600,000 for 2014. And on top of that they operate scattered site shelter space for youth experiencing homelessness and two homelessness prevention programs.

The New York Times recently did a piece on poverty in the United States. Anything below $23,492 as income for a family of four is poverty. Almost 40 percent of people white or black or hispanic between the ages of 25 and 60 will experience poverty for at least one year of that age period. Half of all children in the United States will rely on Food Stamps for a temporary period. The myth that poverty is an inner city phenomenon is mocked by the statistic that 2/3 of those below the poverty level are white and most of those not in cities. Thankfully most people spend a relatively short period of their lives in poverty - usually one to two years before they get back on their feet. It is places like Morningside that undergird those recovery statistics.

I suppose I could be accused of living under a rock but I never knew about the annual fundraisers that support this work: The Hike for the Homeless (up Mt. Wantastiquet) in the fall; Camp for a Common Cause on the Brattleboro Common in May; and a booth at the Harris Hill Ski Jump in the winter. At 76 with 2 bad knees, I don’t tend to notice things that require so much energy! I have to lie on the couch and write a check - and I will.

In the great uterine lottery we did not all get the same strengths and gifts. Luck and good fortune do not seem to be rationally distributed, so sometimes people need a helping hand. These programs are using tax dollars wisely. They take nothing away from the folks who do not need them, and they are a lifesaver for those who do.

Claudette Hollenbeck is a retired Social Worker living in Wilmington and on the Board of both Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and West River Habitat for Humanity.


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