Warming shelter provides nightly respite from Vermont cold
ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) — It’s still dark when the five men and one woman who spent the night at the St. Johnsbury Area Warming Shelter are turned out about 7 a.m. Thursday.
Located in the lower level of a small, ranch-style building at the far end of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, the shelter opened for the cold season about a week before Thanksgiving, Nov. 15. It remains open until April 15.
It has 10 cots, two of which are for women and in a separate room from the men, a kitchen, a single bathroom, and a laundry/storage room.
When people arrive, coming in from the cold to the side door, staff members wave a wand around them, airport-security style, to make sure they aren’t carrying any weapons; their bags are checked, and any medications or knives they may carry are put in a safe overnight, explained shelter coordinator Janis Patoine.
There are two staff members on duty at all times, and volunteers are also used at the shelter; they are especially needed for the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. overnight shift, and to be on-call when someone is out sick, said Patoine.
In its fourth season, the shelter is open from 5:30 p.m. until 7 a.m., seven nights a week. It exists through a partnership of Northeast Kingdom Human Services (NEKHS) and Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA).
“Talking to people, everybody has a story, they’re all very supportive of one another,” said Patoine of the shelter clients, “It’s almost like a family. They all know each other, they say, ‘I’ve seen them on the bus.’ ”
This is Patoine’s first year working at the shelter for NEKCA. She said before starting at the shelter, she was not aware of homeless problem in the Northeast Kingdom.
Patoine, a native of Irasburg who lives in Sutton, said, “I was totally unaware of the homeless issue. You hear about it, but I’m not a night person, I don’t go out at night, I didn’t see anybody, or I didn’t recognize what was going on.”
The other NEKCA staffer on duty Wednesday night, Joann Stone, was previously homeless, said Patoine.
Stone was homeless before there was a shelter in St. Johnsbury, and said, “You had to go all the way to Barre,” for a shelter before.
At one point, Stone built a lean-to in the Hardwick area when she was homeless, and lived in it during the dead of winter one year, she said, adding, “It sucked.”
When Patoine was first assigned to work at the shelter, she said her husband and friends were concerned. She said she’s felt safe and has not had any major issues.
People follow the shelter rules, said Patoine, because they want the shelter to stay open.
Meals are provided, and on Wednesday night, a shepherd’s pie was in the oven from a local church effort; several churches have joined hands to donate freshly-prepared meals.
Shelter guests can also cook their own meals, using groceries on hand, or bring their own food and make meals in the kitchen. There is laundry available, and the nearby Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital takes care of laundry for all linens, said Patoine.
In addition to local churches helping with food, Kingdom Crust, a local pizza restaurant, also has helped, said Patoine. More church help and business donations would be gratefully accepted, staff said.
People are allowed to leave their belongings at the shelter during the day, and service dogs are welcome.
One overnight guest, Jeremy, brings his dog, Blue, a large, gentle dog, who goes right to her dish on the floor near Jeremy’s cot when they come in from the cold.
Most of the people coming into the warming shelter on Wednesday evening declined when asked by a staff member if they would be willing to speak with a reporter for this story.
An exception was Dammyonn Wolffe, 45, who relocated to the NEK about a month ago from Oklahoma with his wife, whose daughter is here, he said, and was the reason for their move.
Wolffe works at Burke Mountain as a line cook, and his wife, Teaha, works at the ski resort in housekeeping, he said.
“I told her, nothing down here is really working . . . I told her I’m going to take the last bit of money I have and we’re just going to go up there and start over, be closer to her daughter, and we’ll make it,” said Wolffe. He said the couple learned of the shelter through RuralEdge, which is working to get them housing they hope to be in soon.
Wolffe has worked in mental health, corrections and as a body guard in the past he said, and is hoping the couple will soon be on their feet and have an apartment; they lived in their van for two weeks before they were connected with the shelter, he said.
He said some of the people at the shelter are in need of the most basic help — money and assistance to get a birth certificate, for example, so they have identifications that will allow them to seek a job.
“It weighs on my heart, I want to see things change,” said Wolffe. He tells other residents about jobs he’s heard of, he said, and tries to assist his bunkmates.
Wolffe said he’s found the warming shelter staff to be very helpful, “It’s better than staying out in the cold,” he said.
Having to leave so early is hard. “Sometimes we go to Price Chopper until other places open up, and we get a little bit of coffee. You have to wait until noon or 1 p.m. for the library to open, to be able to go to a public place to stay warm,” he said.
“A lot of people really don’t understand the concept of being homeless,” said Wolffe. “It’s not just being homeless, it’s the mental state . . . it’s the situations that cause the homelessness. And the other thing to really reflect, on, too, that people don’t think about is relationships. It’s two people that weren’t actually compatible for their relationship and then when that separation is there, one has to go somewhere, they can’t stay in the same household — there’s where your bridge breaks, and you become homeless.”
There have to be rules and regulations for the shelter to work, said Wolffe, and he said not everyone is able to follow those rules. “Some people understand and abide by it and others don’t, and when you get that tossup, they kind of go, like what are we supposed to do? We’ve got our hands out to try to help, but you have to have the same equal part to want to help yourself, and a lot of people want the handout, but they don’t want to better themselves. That’s the main part about it. A lot of people don’t understand that when you come through that door, as soon as you step through that threshold, it’s different from being outside.”
“When you step in, it’s a binding contract, that you abide by the rules, you follow the rules . . . or you’re asked to leave,” said Wolffe. “Sometimes the police have to be called to have people escorted off.”
Wolffe said he’s found Vermonters to be friendly and helpful, as well as kind.
“I’ve even had state troopers, local police stop and ask, ‘Is everything okay? Is there anything we can do to help?’ ”
Jeremy said he came to Vermont in the 90s and had worked as a flooring contractor. He suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety and depression, and struggles with having lost his father and more recently, his 15-year-old son, both to suicide. When he left the warming shelter on Thursday morning, he headed to a gas station in town to stay warm.
Everyone who uses the shelter has a locker and has a key to their locker.
The shelter does accept people who are intoxicated, as long as they are not being disruptive. If a person needs more services, NEKHS will be contacted to come and do an evaluation, said Patoine.
“People are very naive as to what is going on,” said Patoine. “Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”
Stone said she lost her housing in St. Johnsbury when the home’s owner died, and the new owner evicted her.
She was selling used bicycles from the home near Maple Grove Farms and had to liquidate the bicycle business, about six years ago.
Stone said she has been assisted by public programs to get back on her feet, and has been working for NEKCA for the past two years, and now has a place to live. She catches a ride home with Patoine.
In addition to the need for volunteers is a need for donations of meals and warm clothing — including coats, gloves and hats and long underwear, and supplies such as hygiene items including shampoo and deodorant.
Cans of coffee are always great donations, and any drinks and juices; donations can be left at the NEKCA office on Lincoln Street for the shelter or people can email Patoine to arrange a dropoff for freshly-prepared meals. Homemade meals should be made to serve 8-10 people, staff said.
A small freezer is also needed if anyone has one they are willing to donate, staff said this week.
Information from: The Caledonian-Record, http://www.caledonianrecord.com