Bennington meeting discusses homeless warming shelters, changes to state assistance program

Bennington County

BENNINGTON, V.T. (NEWS10) — Every single agency and representative that attended the monthly Coalition of Care meeting Friday agreed the poverty and homeless situation in Bennington is not something to be solved overnight, but they say are all committed to finding both short and long-term solutions to get people off the streets.

“It is a really complex issue,” says Jeannie Jenkins, vice-chair of the Bennington Select Board. “Obviously, if this was something that was easy to fix, we would’ve fixed it already.”

Complex and changing. Despite several heated exchanges in Friday’s meeting, all agreed the existing system needs work.

“Every human being deserves to have shelter, they deserve to have safety, and they deserve to have their needs met. It is absolutely urgent all times of the year, but in particular during weather that is potentially harmful,” says Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Stephannie Peters.

But it’s hard to say how that will get done. Although there are several shelters in Bennington, the question remains, what to do when they’re at capacity? There are no warming shelter protocols in town, and although Vermont offers motel vouchers, it’s under strict precipitation and temperature conditions and then transportation to get there is still a problem.

“I was disappointed. The piece that I really wanted to hear today was here’s something that we can do now, here’s some things that we can do today, here’s something that we can do to prevent another tragedy from happening here in our community, and I didn’t hear that,” laments Charlie Gingo, board chair for the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services.

Restrictions on warming shelters brought up in the Coalition of Care meeting include zoning and fire code requirements for buildings providing temporary or extended housing. Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd confirmed in a NEWS10 interview Thursday several churches volunteered their space, but they did not meet the necessary safety requirements.

Bennington also needs to begin thinking about the future and fast. Continuum of Care Co-chair Chandler Poling announced during Friday’s meeting that by July 1, 2021, Vermont will stop offering the motel vouchers. Funds will then be made available to the municipalities, provided they designate an agency to handle the replacement programs and remaining vouchers by July 1, 2020.

“The decentralization of funding certainly puts the responsibility on us locally, I believe that we are up to meet that challenge,” Peters says to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

Friday’s meeting ended with a plan to put together two committees. One to decide how to respond to the immediate cold weather threat, and one to figure out what to set up to replace the voucher program.

“There’s a sense of urgency, and it’s kind of balanced with, we got to be thoughtful, we got to be planned, we got to take our time here, and part of that is just really frustrating,” Gingo explains.

“I feel like the urgency and the need to move forward and the fact that we can’t be in the same place next year came through loud and clear today,” says Jenkins.

Coalition members also expressed an interest in having community members, particularly those with “lived experiences of homelessness”, to join the committees and share insight on the people who fall through the cracks in the current system.

“I am happy that the group is open to having additional people join them and participate, and I do hope that we can come up with an emergency response for this winter and then something long-term that will be more effective as well,” Jenkins says.

In the meantime, the Economic Services Division in the Bennington State Office Complex still offers the motel vouchers to anyone who comes in and fills out an application. Those in need of emergency housing can call 211 for after hours service. The Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless also provides an adult home and a family home for those seeking long-term shelter.

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