Jim Kenyon: Victim in Hartford fire still recovering months later

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 05-01-2023 10:45 AM

The day after Keith Gokey was hospitalized in December with third-degree burns over 40% of his body, a Hartford police officer wrote in her investigative report that it was believed “due to the extent of his injuries, he will not survive.”

Four and a half months later, while still recovering at a Boston hospital, the 56-year-old Gokey continues to defy the odds.

Gokey was scheduled Friday for another round of skin grafts at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was airlifted to the hospital’s burn center from Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in mid-December.

“I’m not giving up,” Gokey told me in a phone interview from his hospital room last Wednesday. “All I want to do is get healed up and get back to Vermont.”

Where he’ll land in Vermont is still unclear. But that’s long been the case with him.

Gokey is among the state’s chronically homeless.

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At the time of the Dec. 14 fire, he was living in a local nonprofit’s one-room “mobile shelter,” which he’d moved into two weeks earlier on Old River Road in Hartford. The cause of the fire is undetermined.

When I met Gokey in October 2021, he’d been living in a makeshift cabin without electricity or running water on an embankment above the Connecticut River in Wilder.

He was getting ready to clear out, after Hartford officials had initiated a crackdown on homeless encampments in secluded parts of town. Never mind that winter was fast approaching.

Gokey, who had previously lived under a bridge, moved into a tent that he set up in the woods behind a cemetery in Royalton. He later secured a motel room in White River Junction through a federally funded temporary housing program started during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Late last year, Gokey was again on the move.

A fledgling White River Junction-based organization called Doorways Into Good Shelter, or DIGS, for short, offered him a temporary home in one of its 6-by-12-foot structures built on a truck chassis.

DIGS Director Simon Dennis, a former Hartford Selectboard member, had helped Gokey in the past. (Dennis and other volunteers built the shelter near Wilder Dam, where he lived in 2021.

Before Gokey could move into the new dwelling on Old River Road last December, DIGS needed a place to put it. That’s where Chuck Gordon came in.

Gordon, owner of a Hartford landscaping and outdoor maintenance business, has looked out for Gokey over the years. One winter, he covered the cost of Gokey’s room at the Shady Lawn Motel in Hartford. He pays Gokey to sweep floors, shovel walkways and help with odd jobs.

“He’s a really good worker, and he’s honest,” Gordon said.

Some people might consider Gokey, who has a criminal record and served time in prison, as a lost cause. “He drinks and smokes,” said Tiffany Kangas, Gokey’s girlfriend for more than 10 years.

A few nights before the fire, Gordon received a call from Hartford cops who had found an intoxicated Gokey stumbling in the road near the town’s dog park. Before dropping him off at the mobile shelter, police wanted to confirm that he had Gordon’s permission to live there.

“Chuck has always been there for Keith,” Kangas said in a phone interview. “Whenever Keith needed work, Chuck found something for him to do.”

Gordon, 60, allowed DIGS to place the dwelling between buildings he owns on Old River Road, where there’s also a portable toilet. To keep warm at night, Gokey used an electric heater that Gordon loaned him until DIGS hooked up a wall heating system that ran on propane.

On Dec. 14, Gokey recalls returning to the shelter at about 9:30 p.m.

“I had a cigarette in my mouth, and I went to light it,” he told me. “All I heard was poof. The next thing I knew, I was on fire.”

He scrambled outdoors, rolling around in the “mud and what little snow there was,” he said.

After the fire was out, he called Kangas, who lives in South Royalton, to let her know what had happened and that he was going to bed.

“I don’t remember anything after that,” he said.

The next morning, Gordon stopped by to take Gokey to breakfast at a West Lebanon diner. But Gokey didn’t answer.

Gordon called Dennis, who immediately drove to the mobile shelter.

In a statement issued Friday in response to my request for comment, DIGS’ governing board wrote that upon arriving at the shelter, Dennis “observed that (Gokey) had suffered severe burns” and drove him to DHMC. (Gokey told me that he doesn’t remember Dennis taking him to the hospital or being airlifted to Boston.)

Later on the day that Gokey was hospitalized, Hartford public safety officers learned about the fire and visited the site.

The mobile shelter was gone. Dennis had hauled the shelter, which DIGS had registered with the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles because it’s on wheels, to another location.

At about 8:30 that evening, Hartford police Cpl. Aleya Leombruno and Tom Peltier, the town’s fire marshal, paid Dennis a visit at his Hartford home.

Dennis indicated that he moved the structure to get it ready for an upcoming homelessness vigil in Lebanon, of which Gokey was aware before the fire.

After finding Gokey, Dennis told investigators it didn’t “occur to him to call 911,” opting to drive him to DHMC’s emergency department.

Peltier asked Dennis if he did “anything to tamper with the site or the trailer to hinder any investigation.” Dennis responded, “No, that’s not correct.”

Dennis declined to talk with me, indicating DIGS’ governing board wanted “press communication” to go through Chairman Bryan Luikart, an associate professor of molecular and systems biology at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

With Dennis’ consent, the mobile shelter was towed to the Hartford fire station, where town and state investigators attempted to determine the cause of the fire that had led to Gokey’s “life-threatening injuries.”

Det. Sgt. Christopher Blais, of the Vermont Department of Public Safety’s fire and explosive investigation unit, was put in charge.

In his report, Blais noted the structure’s propane wall heater had not been installed by a Vermont-certified gas technician. A test of the heating system indicated “some type of leak,” Blais wrote. But since the structure had been moved multiple times — and the system’s gas line and regulator disconnected — it was unknown if there had been “leaking at the time of the fire.”

An analysis of “all the evidence and information was insufficient” to determine the cause of the fire, the report concluded.

Hartford police turned over the case to the Windsor County State’s Attorney Office for review. In a Feb. 17 news release, police announced that prosecutors found there was “insufficient evidence to meet the probable cause standard for any criminal charges.”

After the fire, DIGS immediately disconnected the propane heating systems in its mobile shelters and only electrical heaters are allowed, according to the statement that Luikart, the board chairman, sent me Friday.

“Our hope is to learn from this incident and use what we learn to devise better shelters, procedures and agreements to protect both the unhoused population and the various organizations working to house them,” the board wrote.

In addition, DIGS is “working with existing residents to expedite placement into permanent housing solutions.” (The police report stated that DIGS was operating four mobile shelters.)

For a couple of years, advocates for the unhoused and Dennis, in particular, have come under heavy criticism from a small but vocal group of residents who claim homeless people are driving up crime and drug use in Hartford. Opponents of the temporary shelters have also argued that homeless encampments that Dennis set up violated the town’s zoning regulations.

The fire that hospitalized Gokey gives the not-in-my-backyard crowd more ammunition in its fight against expanding options for the unhoused.

While the tragedy in Hartford is a setback for DIGS, no amount of wishful thinking by its critics will make the homeless problem go away.

The Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition estimates that more than 2,000 Vermonters will find themselves unsheltered for lack of state funding if the Legislature and Gov. Phil Scott sign off on the 2024 fiscal year budget as currently proposed.

The state’s emergency housing program provided motel rooms for about 2,800 Vermonters during the pandemic. But the money for it is on the chopping block.

Reducing funding for the unhoused is shortsighted, said Anne Sosin, interim executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.

Defunding the emergency housing program won’t “eliminate the cost of homelessness but will instead shift these costs to other overburdened systems, including emergency departments, local municipalities, service providers, the criminal justice system and schools,” Sosin, a Thetford resident, informed the Senate Appropriations Committee in her written testimony.

While talking last week with Sosin, a public health educator and researcher at Dartmouth College’s Rockefeller Center, I brought up what had happened to Gokey.

“His story really makes the case for keeping people sheltered in motels,” she said. “Absent permanent affordable housing, the motel program is far better than most of the options that people resort to, like living in cars and tents, that are less safe.”

Gokey’s medical bills will likely exceed more than $1 million, if they haven’t already, as he’s bounced between Brigham and Women’s and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Kangas, his longtime girlfriend, recognized early on that Gokey needed legal help to sort through what the future might hold.

She called Lebanon attorney Charlie Buttrey, who has represented Gokey in some of his criminal matters.

Buttrey checked to see if DIGS or Dennis had insurance coverage that might benefit Gokey. Arguing the language of the policies doesn’t apply to Gokey’s situation, the “insurance companies have denied coverage,” Buttrey told me.

Buttrey, who visited Gokey at the hospital in Boston, expects to hire an independent investigator to look into the cause of the fire.

“My job is to get the compensation for my client that he deserves,” Buttrey said. “Keith is going to need medical care for the rest of his life. If he is to live independently, he’ll also need a permanent place to sleep at night.”

That would be ideal. But it shouldn’t take a life-threatening fire for society to recognize that homeless people deserve better.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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