Town lends hand with homelessness

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BRATTLEBORO — Advocates for the homeless have an ally in town government.

At the same meeting last Tuesday in which the Select Board approved a $100,000 grant to help build a new seasonal overflow shelter and a $65,000 contribution to get a jobs program off the ground, Town Manager Peter Elwell announced the town would have three porta potties placed in the Preston Lot, High Grove Lot and on the Brattleboro Common.

"During the late evening and during the overnight hours, there are no sanitary facilities for people who are experiencing homelessness or for others who need a toilet," he said. "The town employees and others who are maintaining these spaces have found, particularly this summer, significant amounts of human waste in public spaces in the town. So we view this as an urgent community need, not just as a matter of public dignity but as a matter of public health."

The town planned to pay a contractor to put the porta potties at the sites. Groundworks Collaborative, which offers services and shelters to homeless individuals, is responsible for cleaning the facilities as well as keeping hand sanitizer and toilet paper in stock. The town expects to pay about $1,000 per month for the supplies.

"For the longer term," Elwell said, "we're looking into permanent public toilets that are common in Europe and American cities."

Groundworks gets another $100K

In January, the board applied for a $500,000 grant through the Vermont Community Development Program to support an approximately $3.3 million project to host an overflow shelter, drop-in center and office space at 54 South Main St. In April, the town learned a $400,000 grant would be awarded.

On Tuesday, the board approved a $100,000 grant to Groundworks from "program income," which comes from the VCDP via federal funding and had been loaned out for economic development or housing projects in Brattleboro. The town gets to hold on to half of the proceeds from repaid loans and can then provide loans or grants for projects. Before the grant for Groundworks was accounted for, the town had about $660,829 in program income.

Elwell said town staff recommended the grant in order to keep the project going on schedule and because of its importance to the community. Select Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel said he could not think of a better use for program income.

Jon Hoover, business manager at Groundworks, told the board the project cannot be done without community support.

"And we're really humbled and amazed and thankful for all the support we got thus far," he said.

GPI Construction Inc. of Brattleboro has been hired to manage the project, which is anticipated to be completed in time for the 2020-2021 winter season.

Rhianna Kendrick, director of operations at Groundworks, told the board a seasonal overflow shelter will still be needed for the coming winter season. She said her group was grateful for Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development hosting the shelter on its campus for the last two years.

"We do not currently have another tenant lined up, but have told Groundworks that we are seeking a full-time, year-round tenant so we could not commit to the SOS at this time," Chloe Learey, executive director of Winston Prouty, said in an email.

Work Today

The board approved a $65,000 contribution for a pilot run of the Youth Services-led jobs program called Work Today.

"Essentially, it's spurred on by community concerns about panhandling and the challenge that many people find in maintaining steady work and the incredible economic disparity in our community," said Emilie Kornheiser, workforce development director at Youth Services and state representative for the Windham-2-1 district in Brattleboro.

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The pilot is to last three months, with three days of work a week for about 10 participants. A part-time coordinator would be hired at Youth Services to help get people to job sites, check in on them during the workday, and provide services and support during their lunch breaks.

Elwell said the town's contribution will be considered an unbudgeted expense that will need to be covered by other savings or revenues. He estimated the town has lately ended its fiscal years with surpluses of more than $400,000 to $900,000.

Balancing 'community interests'

After hearing concerns about activities happening in public parks, Elwell said the town is "trying to manage and balance the variety of community interests everyday."

Pierre Landry of Brattleboro spoke about alcohol and marijuana use in Plaza Park, just outside of where he works at the Holstein Association.

"I've yet to see an officer come visit the park and have any sort of conversations or community relations with the people that are there," he told the board. "And I think that would be a good thing."

Select Board Chairwoman Brandie Starr, who works as an outreach case manager at Groundworks and abstained from voting on the grant, said her group does "daily outreach" at parks and other locations with representatives from the police department and Turning Point recovery center

"And I know that because I am that team," she said. "And I was there today and so were the police and so was Turning Point."

Elwell said the police department's mission is to differentiate between those who need help, those who are making bad choices and those who are hurting other people.

"We are very intentionally not criminalizing the gatherings of folks who have nowhere else to go," he said. "I think we should be really frank with one another that arresting someone for misdemeanor conduct in the context that we're talking about is going to spend a lot of time doing bookings and running people into the system. That is not going to cure anything for that person or the community."

The park is being used to store personal belongings, Landry said, estimating between three to eight people have been sleeping in the park overnight throughout the last couple of weeks.

"They do leave their items there over the day," he said. "They're also using the large maple tree in the corner of the park as a restroom. I also think that needs to be addressed."

Dick DeGray of Brattleboro said he sees a lot of smoking at public parks.

"I definitely think that needs to be addressed," he said.

DeGray also urged the town to make more regular garbage pickups from parks.

"Pliny Park and Plaza Park, under heavy use, they have become very cluttered with trash," he said. "I think it's very detrimental and a real eyesore ... I think we need to do a better job on the two main focal points downtown."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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