Down the street but worlds away

It’s the typical Thursday night dinner rush at the Salvation Army on Main Street and Charles Ruger is one of the 60 to 100 diners who will be served tonight’s meal of meatloaf and potatoes. Eager to chat, Ruger talks about the frustration of being homeless and jobless in Burlington, having recently been released from jail on charges he did not specify. “My daily routine consists of getting up and job hunting,” he said. “I ride my bike up and down Shelburne road every day looking for work and no one wants anything to do with you, even the places with ‘Help Wanted’ signs.” Ruger is far from alone. According to the most recent statistics released by the Homelessness Research Institute, Vermont has a homeless population of about 1,214 people.  Nearly three years ago, the Green Mountain State had the highest per capita rate of homelessness in New England, a 2008 Seven Days article stated. Currently the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) has a waiting list for homeless families. Becky Holt, the director of development and communications at COTS said that this list typically averages 15-20 families. Although Ruger has a bed at COTS, others are not so lucky.  “COTS has seen an increase in the overall number of people who are homeless in the past three years,” said Compounding the problem, some homeless people find it difficult to comply with COTS’s strict requirements of sobriety and active job searching. “I get drunk all day because life sucks being homeless,” said Wayne, another homeless man who was served dinner at the Salvation Army. “People drink because of depression.” The death of Paul O’Toole, a homeless man who struggled with alcoholism and died of hypothermia on Dec. 17, 2011, has recently sparked a debate in the Burlington community about whether or not shelters should adopt more flexible sobriety requirements when temperatures are dangerously low. A homeless woman who goes by Windsong believes that homelessness can motivate some people to break the law. “People do something stupid so that they go back to jail instead of freezing to death,” she said. Gov. Shumlin responded to these shelter concerns on Jan. 26 when he announced that the state would waive requirements for homeless shelters during extremely cold weather and would also implement a $1.5 million rental subsidy program. “The goal is simple: move homeless people from shelters and motels to permanent housing,” Shumlin told vtdigger.org. To that end, Shumlin also re-established the Vermont Council on Homelessness to be headed by Angus Chaney, the former community services program administrator for the office of economic opportunity, according to the website. Despite these efforts, some Vermonters believe that there are different approaches to try. Tim Gibbo, a deacon at St. Mark’s church, who organizes dinner at the Salvation Army on the last Thursday of each month said that Vermont should bring back the “poor farm” paradigm. “Growing up, I heard about these places where homeless people would go and live commune-style, growing vegetables and chopping firewood in the winter,” he said. “I think we should bring it back because it is a kind of empowerment.” Windsong, who is a proponent of the state building new shelters, believes Shumlin’s program should design shelters more thoughtfully. “I think it would make more sense to put the people who drink and do drugs in a separate space,” she said. Although UVM’s campus is relatively isolated from the downtown area where homelessness is prevalent, it is not unusual for homeless men and women to seek temporary shelter in campus facilities like the Davis Center and the Bailey/Howe library. Angus Robertson, Bailey/Howe’s access service supervisor, and Selene Colburn, the assistant to the dean for external relations, both said that those not affiliated with the UVM community do spend a considerable amount of time in the library, but it can be difficult to distinguish who is and isn’t homeless. Robertson said that many of these “non-affiliates” spend time lying down and using the Internet, but that Bailey/Howe staff only ask them to leave if there are safety concerns. “Some are avid readers and researchers,” he said. “Only on rare occasions do the police need to visit; for the most part I’ve seen cooperation.” Colburn said that homeless people have just as much of a right to use the library as anyone else, although Bailey/Howe serves the UVM community first. “We’re open to everyone and we take that mission really seriously to be a resource for anyone regardless of their socioeconomic situation,” she said. Chief of UVM Police Services Lianne Tuomey stated that police only get involved with the removal of non-affiliates depending on behavior. “After hours, no one is ‘allowed’ without permission, and if we come across persons in closed buildings, they are identified and asked to leave at the least and may be arrested depending on the circumstances,” she stated in an email. For some downtown establishments that interact with the city’s homeless daily, opinions on the issue are polarized and can be dramatically different based on personal experience. “I think they’re annoying assholes,” said Boggan Anbreesvu, a manager at Junior’s downtown. “Some of them are perfectly capable of working and feel entitled, like we should be catering to them.” Anbreesvu cited complaints about the homeless people who hang out in front of Junior’s that included rudeness to passers-by, public urination, violent behavior and one particularly upsetting incident when he found two homeless men passed out in the bathroom. “When you get down to the nitty gritty of it, the majority of them are homeless because they choose to be,” he said. He made a point of saying that this does not reflect his opinion on all homeless people, and that every Christmas, Junior’s holds a “Need to Feed” event where the restaurant offers a free meal. Joey, a barista at Muddy Waters, had a different view on the matter. “Homeless people aren’t too much of a problem here. Usually they just come in and use the restroom,” he said. “I think Burlington does a lot [for homeless people].  We have good programs here.” Linda Whitehouse, a cook at the Salvation Army, described the homeless individuals she encounters as being helpful, kind and considerate. “Lately, homelessness has become a widespread problem,” she said. As Charles Ruger eats his one guaranteed meal of the day, he sighs before discussing Burlington’s limited job prospects and weak real estate market. “I’m not asking for much,” he says. “All it takes is a warm bed.”