Jim Kenyon: Home is a moving target for some of the Upper Valley’s unhoused

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/3/2021 7:12:05 AM
Modified: 11/3/2021 7:12:12 AM

In June, Leon Simmons stepped off a Greyhound bus in White River Junction without a lot of money or prospects.

The 55-year-old Simmons had traveled 1,400 miles from Tampa, Fla., in hopes of connecting with an old friend and business partner who he believed was living in the Upper Valley.

Within days, Simmons was homeless.

For a while he lived in a tent near Wilder Dam. Later, he set up camp under a bridge close to the Hartford Municipal Building, which is where Simon Dennis came across him.

Dennis, a former Hartford Selectboard member, is a leading advocate for unhoused individuals in the Upper Valley. As summer turned to fall, Dennis was worried that Simmons, who has chronic health problems, might not fare well come winter. “He was totally out of his environment,” Dennis said.

But where could Simmons go?

The Upper Valley Haven’s adult homeless shelter in Hartford, which is operating at less than capacity due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, has a waitlist.

To make matters worse, as I recently wrote, Hartford officials have taken steps to clear out homeless encampments in secluded parts of town. The crackdown comes after a small but vocal group of residents took to Facebook and began showing up at Selectboard meetings, arguing the encampments violated the zoning ordinance.

But Dennis and other homeless advocates have soldiered on. It’s hard to know how many unhoused people are living in the Upper Valley. U.S. Census Bureau counters don’t often trek to homeless encampments.

The unhoused tend to be “private folks,” said Dennis, who estimates Hartford alone had 20 or more homeless people before the town began emptying encampments. “They don’t like the spotlight,” he added.

Even with limited finances, Dennis is committed to helping one or two unhoused people at a time. To that end, he’s built a makeshift recreational vehicle, or RV, for short, that houses two individuals in separate 6-by-10-foot units. The sides and walls are made of sheet metal. Each one-room unit, divided by a solid wall, has its own door and window.

One of Dennis’ frequent helpers, Ken Woodhead, of Woodstock, built wood bed frames so people don’t have to place their mattresses on the linoleum floor.

Earlier this year, Dennis began reaching out to churches in the Upper Valley about parking the RV on their properties. His nonprofit, the Center for Transformational Practice in downtown White River Junction, would take care of logistics, such as arranging for a portable toilet and trash removal.

Not every church, however, was amenable to the idea. They had liability concerns and also seemed worried what neighbors might think about having homeless people living next door.

But the Unitarian Universalist church in Norwich didn’t hesitate. “It’s a small, tangible way that we could help out,” the Rev. Jan Hutslar said.

In early October, Simmons and Brandi Briggs, a 42-year-old woman who has been homeless off and on for a few years, moved into the parking lot at the church on Route 5, not far from the Hartford town line.

Hutslar and the Unitarian Universalist congregation immediately put out the welcome mat, Briggs and Simmons told me. The church provided gasoline for the generator that Dennis brought to heat the two units. Briggs and Simmons got water from the church’s outdoor spigot. After Hutslar offered apples from a tree in the church’s back yard, Briggs made applesauce on her outdoor cookstove.

Apparently, however, not everyone was pleased that the church had opened its parking lot to the unhoused. An anonymous phone caller warned the Family Place, a nonprofit located across the road that works with young families, that they should be worried about one of their new neighbors.

To its credit, the Family Place didn’t overreact to the fearmongering. “We verified that this wasn’t someone to be concerned about,” Executive Director Nancy Bloomfield told me. (Her only regret was that Family Place didn’t find out earlier about what the church was up to so it could lend a helping hand.)

Like Hartford and many other communities, Norwich’s zoning ordinance limits the number of days that people can live in an RV on private property.

With the Norwich deadline approaching, Monday was moving day for Simmons and Briggs.

Dennis hooked up the RV, which sits on a truck chassis and is registered with the Vermont Department of Vehicles, to his truck. He towed the 3,000-pound RV across the Connecticut River to Lebanon.

The downtown First Congregational Church, which is across Colburn Park from City Hall, had answered Dennis’ call to make space on its grounds.

“It struck me as a no-brainer,” said the Rev. Stephen Silver, who gave Dennis the go-ahead with the blessing of the church’s governing board.

“It’s the right thing to do and definitely in the spirit of what we want to be in our community,” added Brian Clancy, the church’s administrator.

On Monday afternoon, I stopped by the parking lot behind the church. Sitting on his bed, wrapped in a warm jacket, Simmons was settling into his new surroundings. A jug of orange juice that he’d brought from Norwich rested at his feet.

“People are very supportive here,” he said. “I’ve got everything I need.”

Briggs, who once worked as a seamstress, had sewn a curtain for his window, which overlooks Lebanon’s village cemetery. “I’m not scared of graveyards,” he assured me.

By Dennis’ reading of Lebanon’s zoning ordinance, the RV can remain at the church until mid-December. His search for other Upper Valley organizations willing to follow the lead of Norwich’s Unitarian Universal and Lebanon’s First Congregational is ongoing.

No doubt it’s a Band-Aid. But with winter fast approaching, and not many options for the Upper Valley’s unhoused, a makeshift RV in a parking lot is safer — and warmer — than sleeping under a bridge.

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

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