Face of homelessness

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(Host) State officials say that more than 9,000 Vermonters have no place to call home. Some stay in shelters or with friends. Others live in cars, and even in tents. Homelessness in Vermont wears many faces and has many causes, as VPR’s John Van Hoesen reports:

(Sound of turkey dinner being served at Open Door Mission.)

(Van Hoesen) It’s warm inside Rutland’s Open Door Mission, where volunteers are serving up a steaming turkey dinner to 40 or so people who need a hot meal. It’s a stark contrast to the outside world tonight, where the wind penetrates even the heaviest clothing, and the temperature is already down to zero.

For some, dinner is the help that allows them to afford their rent. For others, this is the fuel that keeps them going if they have no place to go when supper’s over.

At 6 o’clock, the dining room starts to fill up with a relatively quiet group made up mostly of men. Conversation is low and it’s an understated affair watched over by the Open Door’s director, Sharon Russell.

(Russell) “At the mission, our purpose is to take care of the least, the lost and the last. We provide food, shelter and clothing as much security as we can. Three shelters, a soup kitchen and a thrift store. Almost all of my staff have been homeless at one time. It gives them an idea because they’ve been there before. We label cans, not people. That’s what I live by.”

(Van Hoesen) Russell has been director of the Mission for four years and was associate director for eight years before that. She knows that the stereotype of people who have nowhere to go doesn’t match the true story.

(Russell) “The homeless person is not just the uneducated poor. It’s the mentally ill, the developmentally delayed, the mentally challenged, the veteran with PTSD. A lot of these veterans have bachelor’s degrees, they have master’s degrees. We’ve had an Olympic bronze medal swimmer stay here, we’ve had a prima ballerina. I’ve had doctors, lawyers, people from all walks of life.”

(Van Hoesen) Bill, for example, is a veteran.

(Bill) “I’m a Vietnam vet and a homeless Vietnam vet. I’ve been living on the streets there all summer long until it started turning cold. I stayed out for two of our worst storms that we had, rain and then turning to snow. And then I came down to the Mission. I’ve been going over to the V.A. hospital for alcohol counseling and as soon as there’s a bed available I’ll be going over for detox there.”

(Van Hoesen) He’s experienced life on the street first-hand.

(Bill) “You meet a lot of strange people. You want to keep your guard up all the time cause you don’t know what their reactions are, because they’re total strangers. And all the sudden someone will say, ‘Can I stay here tonight?’ Go right ahead, you know. I was always a light sleeper . And the biggest problem there was, was skunks. I know a guy and a girl, they got a tent and a cover over the top of it and they sleep with three sleeping bags. They weathered the other day and tonight’s going to be way down and they’re sleeping in their tent.”

(Van Hoesen) Bill’s been in the service, and attended engineering school. He’s worked construction and he’s a welder. But he says that if you’re on the street, people can’t see a productive past.

(Bill) They see somebody on the street, they just turn around and look the other way and don’t bother even saying a word.”

(Van Hoesen) Henry has a place, but at one time he spent a year living in his car. He’s watched the downward spiral people can get into when they don’t have a permanent place to live.

(Henry) “They get jobs and they can’t stick with it. They don’t have a place to live. They can’t take a bath. When you get a job you gotta take a bath, you gotta be clean. Your clothes have to be clean, they have to be washed. People don’t want to hire somebody dirty. They ask them, they say ‘Where you live?’ Well I live in a tent . It makes it look like, what is wrong with them?”

(Van Hoesen) In Winooski, a couple we’ll call Don and Jane have been happy in their apartment for many years. They’ve both held jobs and they have two boys at home. But at the end of September, Jane says a letter arrived that changed everything.

(Jane) “‘This letter is formal notice to you and all persons holding under you that your landlord has decided not to renew your oral month to month lease. You are expected to vacate your apartment on or before December 31, 2002.'”

(Van Hoesen) A new landlord needs to rehab the building and Don and Jane are out. They’re looking for a new place, but they’re having little luck finding an apartment that comes close to the $600 rent they’ve been paying. Jane’s McDonald’s wages can’t touch the $1,000/month apartments they’ve seen. And time is running out.

(Jane) “We don’t really have too many options at all right now, really. We’ve applied for Section 8, we’re on a waiting list. We can try to get into subsidized housing but we do that, we’ll lose the Section 8. But we probably don’t have the choice of waiting for Section 8. We don’t really have too many options.”

(Van Hoesen) Officials at local shelters say this is where the problems can start, when a family is displaced from a relatively affordable location. A new rental will require a deposit and the first month’s rent. If there’s a medical bill or a car repair, officials say that can put a family over the edge. Don, who’s held longtime jobs, recently lost his and he doesn’t want to get trapped in this cycle:

(Don) “We’re going to be homeless. That’s what’s going to happen if we don’t find a place. And I really don’t want to be homeless, especially my kids.”

(Van Hoesen) John is also a Vietnam veteran. He’s 52, he’s suffering from medical problems and he’s living a somewhat nomadic life as he looks for work and a place of his own. He’s well-read on veterans’ issues, has been a production assistant in manufacturing and has even had an acting job as an extra. Solutions are on his mind, and he believes that if you’re in one of these difficult situations, you’re unfairly penalized.

(John) “The root is not simply economical; it’s not a psychological problem. It’s a combination of a lot of these and it needs to be addressed by people who care. And if people hear the facts, I think they will be more compelled to do something than to sweep the problem under the carpet.”

(Van Hoesen) In John’s view, people don’t like to see failure illuminated because it makes them self-conscious. He believes the public has to be more understanding:

(John) “It takes time to help people out of very bad situations, especially when they have nothing and nowhere to go. They’re more likely to work in a positive way to help themselves, if they’re treated well and not like a second class citizen or an abomination to society.”

(Van Hoesen) The needs, he says, are basic:

(John) “A place to live, a warm place to sleep, food to eat, someone to love him.”

(Van Hoesen) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Van Hoesen.

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