Homeless shelters serve more families, working poor

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(Host) Groups that provide shelter for the homeless say they expect to be near capacity over the holiday season. The shelters also say the people using their services don’t fit the old stereotypes of the homeless.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

“This is our room, for the four of us.”

(Zind) Bruce Giannuzzi, his wife and their two children have been living in a small room at a house owned by COTS, the Committee on Temporary Shelter, in Burlington. The children’s bunk beds are pushed into one corner. There’s another bed along the opposite wall. On the floor there’s a small artificial Christmas tree.

Giannuzzi says not long ago he was a Burlington homeowner. He worked for Xerox Corporation for 14 years. Then he was laid off. He worked briefly after than until he was sidelined by a back injury. That’s when the bills began piling up. Giannuzzi’s wife’s salary as a teacher’s aide couldn’t support the family and before long they lost their home and their car.

(Giannuzzi) “No, I never imagined I’d be in this kind of situation. Never.”

(Zind) Giannuzzi is receiving social security disability now and the family is looking for a place to rent.

COTS Executive Director Rita Markley Giannuzzi’s story isn’t unusual. She says for many families wages aren’t keeping up with expenses. More part-time work with fewer benefits, a tight housing market and cuts in federal housing subsidies are all reasons why COTS is serving a growing number of working families. Markley says the face of homelessness is changing.

(Markley) “All the different professions of our community life you can find at an emergency shelter now, and that’s very different from the way the world was 15 years ago.”

(Zind) For the first time in at least a decade COTS finished the last fiscal year with a deficit. Federal cuts in the organization’s funding have forced program cutbacks. Markley says COTS isn’t turning anyone away, but it’s taking more resourcefulness and community support to meet demand.

In Rutland, the City Rescue Mission doesn’t serve families. But it’s also seeing a change in the type of person who is homeless: there’s been an influx of Vietnam veterans.

(Russell) “Absolutely! I would say 50 percent of my shelter is dealing with veterans.”

(Zind) Sharon Russell is executive director of the mission. Russell says many of the homeless veterans have worked and raised families. Now they’re older.

(Russell) “All of a sudden that busy stuff that took up their time is gone away and those memories come back.”

(Zind) Russell says the Rutland Rescue Mission has never accepted federal money. She says there are too many strings attached. Instead the mission relies on donations and gifts from local individual and businesses.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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