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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vergennes Shelter Makes Strides In Helping Homeless

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Annie Russell
/
VPR
Scott Boyle, Crystal Macmillan and their six month old son Ronan at the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes. With help from the shelter, they are now living in a house in Middlebury.

The state of Vermont faces unique challenges when it comes to homelessness, and one Addison county shelter is trying to make a real difference.

The John Graham Shelter in Vergennes feels less like a social services program and more like a community. Groups gather in the kitchen preparing food, chatting and laughing. Both individuals and families live in the building, which houses about 20.

Scott Boyle and his partner Crystal Macmillan have a six-month-old son, and they say they're happy to now be living in a house in Middlebury, with support from the shelter.

But last winter, the couple spent time at a warming shelter in Middlebury. It's one of five around the state. Many have touted the warming shelters as critical resources for the homeless during the frigid winter months. But Boyle says that for he and Macmillan, who was pregnant at the time, conditions weren't ideal.

"At the shelter we still weren't allowed to sleep next to each other. They have a policy with that. It was kind of iffy on who was going to be there that night. So you kind of had to be on guard with the stuff you had with you,” he says.

Boyle says he's struggled with homelessness ever since leaving home as a teenager.

Macmillan, who has an art degree from the Pratt Institute in New York City, found herself unable to find a job after graduation. "Because I've been in and out of couch surfing since I graduated,” she says. “And I wasn't able to find a job after I graduated. So my student loans went into default, and they're all messed up. It's overwhelming to take care of. And then landlords notice that I have this on my credit history."

"I wasn't able to find a job after I graduated. So my student loans went into default, and they're all messed up. It's overwhelming to take care of. And then landlords notice that I have this on my credit history." - Crystal Macmillan

The couple has been able to transition to independent housing relatively quickly.

Joseph Marszalkowski, 24, is also hoping for his own place and says he's been homeless off and on for the past four years. He thinks people make assumptions about those who are homeless.

"Not a lot of people understand what it's like to be homeless. They've never had to deal with it. They've always had somebody to let them in ... So a lot of people see homeless people and they think they're just a bum or something. So they don't really care a lot about what the person is going through, or what they have to struggle with on a daily basis." - Joseph Marszalkowski

He says that many Vermonters struggle with the same challenges some homeless people face – whether it's unemployment, health issues or substance abuse. But the difference is that some have a support system.

"Not a lot of people understand what it's like to be homeless. They've never had to deal with it. They've always had somebody to let them in, parents that love them, family, friends. Or they just plain haven't put themselves in a situation where they're homeless. So a lot of people see homeless people and they think they're just a bum or something. So they don't really care a lot about what the person is going through, or what they have to struggle with on a daily basis,” says Marszalkowski.

Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the John Graham Shelter, emphasizes how important it is to place individuals into housing first, and then work on any underlying issues. She says, "They get a place. They get a place of their own. It's theirs, and they're supported in it. And then we work on treatment, we work on employment. We work on overcoming the symptoms of diabetes or emphysema. But the housing comes first.”

Barrett Ogden, who is living in one such supported apartment in Vergennes, says being close to the shelter keeps him from feeling isolated. He's struggled with drinking in the past, and he takes medication that makes it harder to metabolize alcohol.

"They get a place. They get a place of their own. It's theirs, and they're supported in it. And then we work on treatment, we work on employment. We work on overcoming the symptoms of diabetes or emphysema. But the housing comes first." - Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the John Graham Shelter

He's chosen to come to the shelter daily to take his meds. “The only reason that Antabuse is on the market is that if you are on this medication and you drink, you'll become so sick you'll never want to drink again. I take it, and my bottle is right there. I come here morning or afternoon and I take my pill. Or they stop at my place and I take my pill," he says.

As he reaches for his medication, Ogden points out it was a decision he and Ready made together. "She'll make a suggestion, and, you know, I agree with her a lot of the time,” he says.

Ready says providing that support, along with housing itself, is crucial.

This interview is part of a two-part series on homelessness in Vermont. Find more about the unique challenges facing Vermont’s homeless population here.

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