Middlebury homeless shelter to stay open for summer

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (WCAX) For the first time in its 10-year history, a Middlebury homeless shelter is keeping its doors open for the summer. Our Christina Guessferd learned why Charter House Coalition is expanding past the winter months.

Wet shelters tend to close during the warmer months, citing a lack of funding for year-round operation and a decline in demand.

But the homeless taking advantage of the new hours at the Charter House Coalition say mental health issues, substance abuse struggles and housing needs are just as prevalent in June as they are in December.

"There's nowhere else for them to go but to sleep in a tent or sleep in a gazebo or sleep where they could put their head," said Steven Palmer of Middlebury.

Palmer says if not for the Charter House Coalition staying open for the summer, he and a lot of Middlebury's homeless would be spending their nights under a bridge or in a tent.

"Some people can't sleep outside. Either they have mental health issues where they can't be outside or physical conditions where they can't get outside," Palmer said.

Given his bad hip, Palmer says knowing he has a safe place to shower, eat and sleep gives him the peace of mind he needs to stay clean and find permanent housing.

"If you're sleeping on the street and you're trying to stay clean, it's just not going to work sometimes because you're getting put down every day, one thing going down and down and down, and next you're just not going to care," Palmer said.

Directors began discussing the possibility of keeping the shelter open year-round last September when they decided to open six weeks ahead of schedule in response to a spike in demand.

"Decided that it worked well and that we could go forth this summer and remain open," said Samantha Kachmar, the co-director of the Charter House Coalition. "Even in Vermont, sometimes in the summer the nights get cold, and there's the mosquitos or other insects to deal with and it can be uncomfortable to be outdoors."

Since April, Kachmar says the shelter has been at its 16-person capacity every night and has had to turn some away. She points to the lack of affordable, available housing in Addison County.

"There's a 1 percent vacancy rate and the fair market rent is $888, but most apartments are more than that. Many people are at minimum wage, which is not going to cover the expense of an apartment," Kachmar said.

Kachmar says it cost an additional $12,000 to open the shelter early in September. She says keeping it open for another five months will cost $62,000.

"We have raised two-thirds of that money already, so we're off to a good start, but we still have a third to go," Kachmar said.

Now, Kachmar is calling on locals to donate, so the shelter can help people like Palmer get back on their feet.

"If you really want help and you really want to put your effort to it, they'll help you, but they can only do so much. You have to do the rest yourself," Palmer said.

There's a push in Burlington to keep a low-barrier shelter open year-round, especially since camping is prohibited. But without proper funding, city officials say it will stay closed from now until Nov. 1.