Amid housing shortage, Bradford struggles with homelessness

After loading one of his packs with food at the Bradford Food Shelf on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, Garrett O’Brien-Manning eats a chocolate doughnut in the basement of the Bradford Academy building, where the food shelf is located. O’Brien-Manning did not know where he would be sleeping that night. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After loading one of his packs with food at the Bradford Food Shelf on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, Garrett O’Brien-Manning eats a chocolate doughnut in the basement of the Bradford Academy building, where the food shelf is located. O’Brien-Manning did not know where he would be sleeping that night. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Librarian Gail Trede talks about the unauthorized issues she has had with those outside the Bradford Public Library. She says there have been people using an electrical outlet, an outdoor water spigot and the building's Wi-Fi after hours. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Librarian Gail Trede talks about the unauthorized issues she has had with those outside the Bradford Public Library. She says there have been people using an electrical outlet, an outdoor water spigot and the building's Wi-Fi after hours. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

When waiting for a ride at the Bradford Public Library, Thomasina Howard of Bradford, Vt., checks her phone on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Howard, who now has an apartment in town, has previously been homeless. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

When waiting for a ride at the Bradford Public Library, Thomasina Howard of Bradford, Vt., checks her phone on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Howard, who now has an apartment in town, has previously been homeless. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Grace United Methodist Church Pastor Ami Sawtelle speaks to the homeless issue in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 1, 2023, on her porch next to her church with her dog Miles. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Grace United Methodist Church Pastor Ami Sawtelle speaks to the homeless issue in Bradford, Vt., on Aug. 1, 2023, on her porch next to her church with her dog Miles. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

Bradford Food Shelf volunteer Carolyn Coffin helps Garrett O’Brien-Manning pick out items on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Bradford, Vt. O’Brien-Manning has been homeless since December. With thunderstorms predicted for the evening he did not know where he would be sleeping that night. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Bradford Food Shelf volunteer Carolyn Coffin helps Garrett O’Brien-Manning pick out items on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Bradford, Vt. O’Brien-Manning has been homeless since December. With thunderstorms predicted for the evening he did not know where he would be sleeping that night. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Bradford Police Chief Russell Robinson talks about the homeless issues in Bradford, Vt., on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Robinson has had to ask people to move off of public and private land in the town. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Bradford Police Chief Russell Robinson talks about the homeless issues in Bradford, Vt., on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Robinson has had to ask people to move off of public and private land in the town. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Garrett O’Brien-Manning sits in front of the Bradford Public Library on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. O’Brien-Manning was charging his cell phone and waiting for the Bradford Food Shelf to open that day. He has been homeless since December.  (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Garrett O’Brien-Manning sits in front of the Bradford Public Library on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. O’Brien-Manning was charging his cell phone and waiting for the Bradford Food Shelf to open that day. He has been homeless since December.  (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

The community bulletin board at the Bradford Academy building covers a large swath of needs for people in town. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The community bulletin board at the Bradford Academy building covers a large swath of needs for people in town. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 08-07-2023 11:38 AM

BRADFORD, Vt. — Waiting for the food shelf to open in what was once Bradford Academy, Garrett O’Brien-Manning sat outside the town’s library on Thursday, using the internet connection to check messages on his cellphone. For others in his situation, the Woods Library — an impressive, turreted 19th-century brick building — is a dry, warm public space with restrooms where they can escape the weather and wash up.

O’Brien-Manning, 35, has been unhoused since December. A West Fairlee native, he was couch surfing until the weather warmed up enough to sleep outdoors. 

Last year, he was working at Pompanoosuc Mills, a furniture company in Thetford. But since the winter, he’s focused mostly “on survival,” he said.

An old mill town of about 2,600 people, Bradford has been straining under the weight of the housing crisis that has afflicted the state for years. But this summer, many say the problem is more visible than ever before.

The state’s motel voucher program, instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic, sheltered a portion of the state’s unhoused population. In June, it expired for a sizable portion of the nearly 3,000 people enrolled. With no homeless shelter in Orange County and beds full elsewhere in the state, the crisis has come to Main Street.

Gail Trede, Bradford’s head librarian, has worked to keep the library’s doors open to the people who need it for more than just reading materials.

“I’ve been here for 15 years, and for 15 years I’ve said, ‘Not just books,’ ” Trede said. “We’re a social service.”

People sit in the library’s parking lot to use the Wi-Fi, which has been available 24/7 since the pandemic. There’s an outdoor water spigot and electrical outlet. People come to wash dishes in the basement sink. 

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Protests of president punctuate rainy graduation for Dartmouth’s Class of ’24
Fairlee coffee shop creates a buzz around town
Judge: Hanover wrong to deny right-to-know request
New Hartford middle school dean of students seeks to repair relationships
Young bear spotted relaxing on a hammock in a Vermont yard
Taken for taxes and ‘waiting to die’: A homeowner struggles to keep his home

A few years ago, Bradford hosted a number of librarians for a clinic on how to use Narcan, a narcotics overdose treatment, led by Bradford-based Little Rivers Health Care. This summer, Trede installed secure containers for safe disposal of used needles.

But demand is growing in a way that the library can’t keep up with. The situation is “far worse” than last summer, Trede said.

In July, attention turned to the library after people began sleeping on the building’s lawn and front steps. Trede found a library book on top of a pile of human feces.

“I love my job, it’s the best job in the world. But this is burning me out,” Trede said. “And it’s not just a problem here. It’s everywhere.”

In June, nearly 800 people lost motel housing benefits when the state narrowed eligibility. Vermont had the second-highest rate of homelessness in the nation in 2022, and it saw an 18.5% increase in 2023.

“If I don’t get a complaint, I don’t bother them,” Bradford’s Police Chief Russell Robinson said about the town’s homeless population, which has had “peaks and valleys” over his 40-year career in Vermont law enforcement.

Homelessness has long been a seasonal problem in Vermont, where the population of those that are unhoused peaks during the summer months. “This summer is nothing like what we’ve experienced even over the last three, four years,” Robinson said. “But when the vouchers ran out, people had nowhere to go but the streets.”

Before the pandemic, places like the Upper Valley Haven, a shelter in White River Junction, had spots for them. Now, there’s rarely room at the Haven, Robinson said. The issue is amplified by the fact there are no homeless shelters in Orange County.

“It’s the first time in my career I’ve seen something like this,” Robinson said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”

Pastor Ami Sawtelle, of Bradford’s Grace United Methodist Church, sees part of the answer in other services, beyond just shelter. There are quicker fixes than housing that can alleviate some of the challenges of homelessness, she said.

Her church opens twice a week for showers, but she says there’s more need for public facilities, such as restrooms, in Bradford.

“Even just having Porta-Potties would help,” she said. “Bradford is a desert when it comes to housing. So more housing would be nice, but we have these people here, so how do we help them retain their humanity?”

A few years ago the town removed its public trash cans. “They didn’t want to pay to have them emptied,” Sawtelle said, adding that unhoused people still need a place to put their trash.

“People are here, and they’re going to stay here,” she said. “The removal of supports such as toilets and trash cans isn’t going to drive them away.”

Consistent transportation also is essential to lifting people out of homelessness, Sawtelle said. Tri-Valley Transit — a bus service that primarily serves Addision, Orange and northern Windsor counties – is a crucial link for many people to hop onto other routes that can then take them to social service hubs like Lebanon and White River Junction.

But due to lack of drivers, the service can’t run as much as advertised. 

“We’re working on the hiring process and anticipate bringing in new drivers very soon,” said Mike Reiderer, Tri-Valley’s community relations manager, in an interview on Friday. 

Thomasina Howard, 37, had previously been homeless but now has an apartment in Bradford.

Howard, who runs a cleaning and maintenance company, doesn’t have her driver’s license. When she can’t get rides from her family, she often walks from job to job. 

“I have to work my week around my sister and mother’s car,” Howard said. “It’s hard to keep a consistent schedule like that.”

The unreliable bus service also has been hard on O’Brien-Manning. 

He relies on public transportation, when he can get it, to reach court-mandated appointments.

O’Brien-Manning was arrested for sleeping at the abandoned Veneer Mill in Bradford during a night of heavy rain in June. He was charged with criminal trespassing (but maintains there were no posted signs at the time), and sent into a court diversion program. His appointments for the program are in Chelsea, but he has no dependable ride there and is usually left scrambling to piece together transportation.

When the food shelf opened at 3 p.m. on Thursday, O’Brien Manning hoisted his heavy backpack onto his shoulders and started the walk down Main Street from the library to the academy building.

At the food shelf — which is run by a few churches in town, including Sawtelle’s — they’ve seen more need this summer than ever before. “This has been a challenge,” volunteer Carolyn Coffin said.

The food shelf relies mostly on food from the Vermont Foodbank in Barre and Norwich-based Willing Hands, which provides produce. They used to get more local donations, Coffin said, but as inflation strains everyone’s pocketbooks, the food shelf has seen less of that.

“We need to stretch our supplies,” a sign on a refrigerator holding donated meat reads.

O’Brien-Manning loaded up a second backpack with the food that will last him the next few days. He’d have to cook the meat he got that night.

“It’s a pain,” he said. “But it’s survival.”

CORRECTION: The Vermont Foodbank is located in Barre. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the food bank. 

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.