Identifying ways to better help families experiencing homelessness

By Chloe Learey, Executive Director. Published in VT Digger, Feb 13, 2024

Four years ago, the state of Vermont mustered the political will to offer shelter to all as the pandemic unfolded. The motel program was born and has continued to this day. It has been a game changer for many, an opportunity to have a reliable place to live amid uncertainty, during a time when housing is difficult to find even for those who can afford it.

The motel program has also created settings that are not ideal. Congregate shelter in privately owned businesses that are not required to provide supportive services has led to environments which are not always healthy for people, particularly children. Issues ranging from having no safe place to play to witnessing overdoses highlight that motels are not appropriate for long-term support of optimal child development.

The housing supply did not magically fix itself during the pandemic, and as the motel program sunsets, a lack of housing remains a barrier for people to transition to a more permanent, stable home.

Homelessness can cast a profound and detrimental shadow over the lives of children, leaving an indelible mark on their physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being. Lack of stable housing disrupts foundational elements crucial for a child’s development. Educational pursuits are hindered when relocations and inconsistent attendance impede academic progress. Perpetual instability breeds anxiety and stress, jeopardizing mental health.

Moreover, homelessness often forces children into cramped shelters or inadequate living conditions, exposing them to heightened health risks. Insufficient access to nutrition and healthcare amplifies vulnerability to illnesses, stunting both physical growth and cognitive development. The absence of a secure home environment deprives these children of a sense of safety and belonging, compromising their emotional resilience.

Socially, the stigma associated with homelessness further isolates these youngsters, fostering feelings of shame and alienation. This isolation may impede their ability to form meaningful relationships, hindering the development of crucial social skills. As these children navigate the challenges of homelessness, they carry the weight of these experiences into adulthood, perpetuating a cycle of hardship.

Addressing child homelessness demands comprehensive efforts, encompassing affordable housing initiatives, targeted support systems, and educational interventions. By recognizing the pervasive impact of homelessness on children, society can strive towards creating a more equitable and compassionate future for the most vulnerable members of our community.

When news that the two former dormitories on the Prouty campus would become vacant due to a tenant relocation it was important to explore the possibility of a family shelter that could provide a safe place for children. In consultation with local partners, including the town of Brattleboro, Groundworks Collaborative, our AHS Field Services Director, and the state Office of Economic Opportunity, Winston Prouty has developed a plan to create a program to meet this need. We feel it is our responsibility to create space and programming that supports children and families in our community when we can. This project has a limited scope, through June 2025, due to funding availability and our plans to build 300 units of mixed income housing, hopefully starting in mid-year of 2025.

The intention of the Emergency Shelter for Families with Children is to invite families experiencing homelessness the opportunity to join the Prouty Campus community and stay temporarily in one of two 5,000 square foot buildings. Intensive case management is a primary aspect of the program, with a focus on exploring barriers to housing and securing permanent housing. The foundation of the shelter is that the environment will be safe for children.

Each building is a former dormitory and has approximately 10 rooms each plus full kitchens, bathrooms with showers, and living room spaces. The shelter will be fully furnished. The program will be able to temporarily house up to 40 people (48-person max depending on family size and reasonable shared floor/facilities arrangements). Being on the campus includes access to outdoor play space, extensive hiking trails and green spaces and the Brattleboro Winter Farmer’s Market, and proximity to a shopping center with grocery, pharmacy, and banking services. Winston Prouty provides a variety of services for children and families, and the campus is on the Monday–Saturday MOOVER bus route. These elements contribute to conditions which are more likely to support optimal child development than is possible in a motel.

Our community faces complex challenges and there is not one single entity or organization responsible for or capable of addressing them single-handedly. We must come together to develop strategies and implement solutions. Winston Prouty is taking the lead on the shelter, just as we are exploring developing housing, but we cannot and are not doing it alone. Support comes in many forms, from advice and technical assistance to financial resources, to feedback and words of encouragement, to collaborations and formal partnerships. It will take all of us working together to build a thriving community, and we are grateful to contribute what we can.