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January 03, 2014

Wintry Blast Prompts State and Nonprofit Groups to Find Roofs for Homeless

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Before yesterday, Wayne Dow hadn’t slept under a roof since early springtime. Homeless for many years and sleeping most recently near the Barge Canal in Burlington’s South End, the  60-year-old said today that he had planned to spend the whole winter outside. But on Thursday morning, “I got up and just said, ‘Alright, Nature, you win!’”

So after Dow (pictured, right) peeled off his icy crust of a blanket yesterday morning, he contacted the Committee on Temporary Shelter. COTS assigned him a bed in a Church Street homeless shelter. As he explained this, he was smoking a cigarette outside the COTS daystation on Buell Street. He’d just had lunch there — ham and potatoes au gratin — and was heading to the pharmacy to pick up cold medicine.

That Dow sought shelter was understandable. Thursday, Burlington temperatures were hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit. Friday, the National Weather Service recorded a high in Burlington of negative two degrees and the temperature was expected to plummet overnight to 15 below. And that was before factoring in the wind chill. (The ink in this reporter’s pen froze several times during the reporting of this story.)

DSC_0077Many schools across the Champlain Valley were cancelled or delayed because of the snow that accompanied the frigid temperatures. With meteorologists predicting the cold spell to last into the weekend, local social service agencies scrambled  to provide emergency shelter and services to the area’s homeless population.

According to COTS spokeswoman Becky Holt, the organization extended the hours of operation for its day- and night-time drop-in centers (known as the Daystation and Waystation, respectively), so that there’s no window in the 24-hour day when homeless people lack a place to get warm.

The Vermont Economic Services Division, meanwhile, has implemented a winter weather exception, meaning it will cover the cost of motel rooms when individuals can’t find other shelter from the cold. Nonprofit organizations like the HowardCenter’s Street Outreach Team and Spectrum Youth & Family Services have been steering people to those services as well as providing some of their own.

“When it gets cold, I put out a call to churches, companies for coats, hats, gloves, anything,” says Mark Redmond, Spectrum executive director. “Thankfully people are pretty generous.”

According to Bridget Laroche, Spectrum's drop-in and outreach coordinator, she tends to see fewer people when its gets this cold, as people hunker down wherever they can. 

Friday afternoon, the COTS Daystation didn't appear to be swamped, either. But there was a steady flow of people, like Dow, heading there for a hot lunch. “I’m just moving spot to spot to spot,” said Chuck Johnson, 62. He'd just come from the heated Burlington Town Center mall, and would be moving to check his email at the Fletcher Free Library after lunch. 

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On the one hand, Johnson (pictured, left) said with a dismissive laugh, “I’ve lived in Vermont a long time, and it’s been colder than this.” But on the other, he's lived in COTS's 36-bed Waystation for the last year, and he’s grateful for the emergency measures that will allow him to get there one hour earlier today.

Another thing Johnson says he's looking forward to? It's supposed to get warm enough to rain next week.

The COTS Daystation pictured above. Photos: Charles Eichacker. 

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