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With COVID-19 closing off resources, homeless people, advocates worry about winter

  • Cheryl Fleming, 71, watches for a break in traffic to cross Main Street in West Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Fleming said she currently lives in a small cabin in Hartford and has stayed at the Upper Valley Haven’s Hixon House and warming shelter in years past. The Haven will not be offering a seasonal warming shelter this winter due to the pandemic. “I’ve been outside, this is my third or fourth year,” she said. “I hope it’s the last.” Fleming also tries to avoid some of the motels where she has been sent in the past through short-term housing assistance. “I love it outside. I know how to take care of myself. I could stay with people, but I choose not to.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Sam Johnson, 19, of Wilder, left, packs up his camera gear after filming a scene for a movie he is making with Michael Copp, 19, of Hartford, right, near the entrance to the Maanawaka Conservation Area in Wilder, Vt., Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Maanawaka was one of three areas proposed in July by Selectboard Vice Chair Simon Dennis for a permanent encampment for the homeless, but deed restrictions on the property would not allow such a use. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • The Hurricane Hill Forest above Wright’s Reservoir in White River Junction was one of three areas proposed in July by Selectboard Vice Chair Simon Dennis for a permanent encampment for the homeless. At a meeting later in the month, then-Town Manager Brannon Godfrey said deed restrictions on the property would not allow for the camp. Wright’s Reservoir was photographed Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Robin White, of Wilder walks with her dog Chet on Arboretum Lane near the Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. A piece of land west of the road, at left, was one of three areas proposed in July by Selectboard Vice Chair Simon Dennis for a permanent encampment for the homeless. The land is a state designated wetland. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/26/2020 9:39:31 PM
Modified: 9/29/2020 12:08:14 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — With the COVID-19 pandemic having shut down some shelters and made other resources difficult to access, many homeless people are facing a winter that brings new, frightening challenges.

“The not knowing is what’s really scary,” said Ty English, who plans to ride out the winter in a camper the Upper Valley Haven helped him obtain, though he still needs to find a site for it.

He says many other people in the homeless community are still unsure of how they’ll get through the cold months. “A lot of people are waiting to hear on a week-to-week basis.”

A lot of the uncertainty is a result of social distancing safety precautions in the pandemic. The Haven’s 15-bed seasonal shelter, for example, will not open this winter due to COVID-19 safety concerns, according to Haven Executive Director Michael Redmond. The shelter, which has traditionally provided a warm place for people without housing to stay during the colder months, doesn’t have adequate ventilation or individual rooms, meaning people who stay there would be at risk of catching the coronavirus, Redmond said.

The Haven has also halved the beds in its permanent shelter from 20 to 10, to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

“A lot of people are worried about the warming shelter not being open,” said Rich Royce, who is homeless but is currently staying with friends. He added that a lot of people in the community are “at their wits’ end” because of the pandemic.

But shelters aren’t the only resources affected; some people in the community say they’ve had a harder time accessing food and clothing, partly because of new safety guidelines to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

“Some things are closed, some stores say, ‘Don’t bring in a big family’,” said Kayla Wilson, a mother of two who said she was homeless until this spring when the Lebanon nonprofit WISE helped her find an apartment.

Her friend, Alena Robinson, echoed her words, saying that she was homeless until August and that she’s noticed an increased number of people facing homelessness in the Upper Valley, which has put a strain on resources.

“It’s going to be hard this time,” she said of the coming winter.

The state of Vermont, anticipating a need for shelter during the pandemic, opened a motel voucher program in the spring. Under the program, homeless people who are not showing signs of COVID-19 can use state-issued vouchers to stay in nearby motels.

A message to the Vermont Department of Health regarding when the voucher program will run out was not returned Friday, but last month the state’s Economic Services Division published a memo on the state website saying homeless Vermonters are still eligible to apply for the program.

Karen Zook, of UVGear, which helps provide tents and other equipment for homeless people in the Upper Valley, said she has also seen an uptick in demand due to the pandemic. Since the end of July, she said the group has recorded a 50% increase in contact with people in need, compared with the rate at the beginning of the summer.

“We’ve seen a lot of families needing gear, when ordinarily there is adequate shelter space for families,” Zook said in an email Wednesday. On top of the larger demand, UVGear is finding it difficult to get tents and sleeping bags, either because manufacturers are more focused on creating protective gear or because general interest in outdoor recreation has increased, she wrote. That’s especially worrisome as the weather gets colder.

“I’m concerned about the unhoused population’s ability to stay warm. Since access to public spaces is basically nonexistent, it will be more challenging for this population to have anywhere to go during the day,” Zook said.

Seeing the number of challenges this year, Zook, Redmond and other advocates for the homeless community said they’ve tried to focus on new ways to support homeless people this winter.

Redmond said the Haven has traditionally partnered with local motels and will put people up for a night or weekend. He said the organization may be able to put the funding that would go to the seasonal shelter toward motel rooms for people during especially cold nights, instead.

On top of that, he said, the Haven is collecting donations like tents and sleeping bags and buying equipment to donate, like propane. Instead of the traditional indoor meals that the Haven used to offer, Redmond said the nonprofit is now providing takeout meals to cut the risk of transmitting the virus.

Zook said one of her concerns is the lack of public spaces available to homeless people, which means fewer spaces for people to stay warm and to use the bathroom. As a result, UVGear has started making a weekly cart of hygienic materials available outside the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon, to help people who can’t otherwise access a restroom.

Hartford Selectboard member Simon Dennis, who has long been an advocate for the homeless community, said he’s planning on making around eight insulated, transportable “domes” available this winter, which act as temporary homes for one or two people.

Dennis has also been pushing for the town to establish a permanent homeless encampment that would be secluded but close to public transportation. The spot would include electricity and running water, and could be used through the winter months. Originally he proposed three spaces including Hurricane Forest and a section of land behind the Upper Valley Aquatic Center, but the Selectboard decided those weren’t viable.

At a Selectboard meeting this month, members discussed using one of the 108 parcels of town-owned land for the site, an option that Dennis said he is still exploring. Because some of the sites that best fit the requirements for an encampment are on the town’s floodplain land, Dennis said he is looking at constructing floatable temporary homes.

“We’ve been experimenting with a whole bunch of different designs,” he said.

Still, time is running out for many in the homeless community. People sleeping outside need to find a place to stay that they can “fortify” with tarps and insulation before the colder weather hits, English said.

“The month of October is key to get yourself to a place where you can stay warm,” Dennis said.

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

Valley News

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