Warming Shelter Scheduled to Open Next Week

warmingshelterthumbnailST. JOHNSBURY - An overnight warming shelter for homeless people is scheduled to open in the town next week. The St. Johnsbury Development Review Board gave the warming shelter committee permission to open it at a special meeting last Tuesday.  


Northeast Kingdom Human Services is one of the non-profit organizations who makes up the warming shelter committee. Its officials say the shelter staff needs to be trained this week before they can open.That staff is comprised of volunteers and paid mental health professionals.

The shelter, which will be located in NEK Human Services' mental health crisis center on Hospital Drive, will be used to house up to ten single, homeless adults throughout the winter. It will be open everyday from 5:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. Food will also be served.

In years past, the State would house homeless people in hotels during the winter, using the hotel voucher system. Shaun Donohue, from the Agency of Human Services and a member of the warming shelter committee, says that system did not benefit homeless people long-term. It gave them a place to sleep a night, but it did not help address any underlying issues with homelessness. The warming shelter committee was formed to create a place where homeless people could stay warm for the night, but also work with specialists to figure out why they are homeless and what they can do to become a contributing member of the town.

Donohue said, "This would be an opportunity to dig a little deeper indivudually and find out what is behind the homelessness -- are there work challenges, are there Barriers, are there mental health issues -- and begin to address some of that."

Finding a location was no easy feat. The warming shelter committee discussed several locations for the shelter prior to settling on the current building. All of the previous plans were rejected. Many residents and businesses did not like the locations the committee proposed.

When the committee first began looking at creating a shelter, they worked with Northeast Kingdom Community Action to see if they could put it in their facility in East St. Johnsbury.

"That facility is located in a neighborhood. There was some opposition from the neighborhood when we went to a zoning meeting," Donohue said.

The Development Review Board ruled that it could not be located at NECKA's facility.

Next, the committee approached Northeast Kingdom Youth Services about a room in their facility. NEKYS was on-board, but at a development review board meeting, a number of questions were raised and NEKYS backed out.

The next location proposed was the North Congregational Church. The congregation held a public meeting to discuss using their basement as the shelter facility. Public outcry at that meeting also resulted in the church backing out.

Donohue says, "I think much of what was said, was said out of fear of the unknown." He went on to say, "There's the NIMBE acronym: Not In My Back Yard."

Town Manager Chad Whtiehead said, "Residents obviously with children would be concerned about having that located in their back yard, and just felt that with the services that the medical community could have, it probably made more sense for something like that to be located closer to those services."

The selectboard decided the shelter could only be located in what they call the "health services district." This district is made up of all the medical offices located on Hospital Drive. The committee then begain working with the health services district come up with a way to open a shelter in that area and meet the selectboard's mandate.

Susan Cherry, the director of the Community Restorative Justice Center and a member of the the Warming Shelter Committee, said, "This is a community decision and we want to do it well and I think that's what we can all agree upon. We want to have a good facility, that's run well, and run safely."

The state, NEK Human Servicess, Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, and Northeast Kingdom Community Action worked closely to narrow down a location in the district. NEK Human Services has a small building, near the Norris Cotton Cancer Center North on Hospital Drive, that was going unused, so they proposed it as the location for the shelter.

 According the NEK Human Services, at the latest special meeting, there was no opposition from town officials or residents.

 The Development Review Board has approved the shelter for one year. After that, the Warming Shelter Committee will have to renew their application. By June, the committee is required to give town officials information of the people who stayed in the shelter. The town is asking for information like where the guests are from, how old they are, and what gender they are.

Some state funds originally used for hotel vouchers will be used to pay for the shelter, as well as other state grants. The shelter would be first come, first served. With the remaining funds, the state will still house the rest of the single adults in hotels.

Member of the warming shelter committee say above all, they have a moral obligation to help others.

"We all have needs, but based among those is the need for safety and security...What could be more basic then having a warm place to sleep at night? I think we owe that to anybody in our community. We are our brothers keeper," Donohue said.

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