Homelessness not just an urban problem

By David Gram, Associated Press – December 23, 2006

VERGENNES, Vt. –After a hard day splitting wood or loading hay for delivery to horse farms, Paul Aube would like to head home. But he doesn’t have one.

Instead, the 48-year-old laborer gets a ride from the Ferrisburgh farm where he works to neighboring Vergennes, where they drop him off at the John W. Graham Shelter to spend another night in the men’s bunk room.

Aube, whose education ended in 10th grade, makes $50 a day for his farm labor — not enough to afford an apartment.

In the summer, he stays in a beat-up old camper-trailer on the farm. It doesn’t have a heater. Aube says he’s saving up for one. But in each of the last three Novembers, “when it gets really cold” he has given up the trailer for the homeless shelter.

“I’m a little down about it because I’m in a place like this where you can’t really be by yourself,” he said in an interview. But, “It’s a roof over my head and it keeps me out of the cold.”

Homelessness is not just an urban problem.

While more well-known in big cities, it reaches into America’s small towns and rural areas, too. In Vermont, which marked homelessness awareness week with a series of events this week, about 4,000 people have been homeless at some point in the last year — a quarter of them children.

With the cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Vermont affordable only to those making $32,000 a year or more, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, $50-a-day workers like Aube are often forced to do without.

At the Graham Shelter, his predicament isn’t unusual, according to director Elizabeth Ready.

Many of those staying at the 18-bed shelter are working — at supermarkets, department stores, a soap factory — and others are in transit, fleeing abusive spouses or suffering from mental health problems.

“The most heartbreaking for me are the people with mental health problems who come in for a few days and then go back out on the street,” Ready said.

Jeffrey and Virginia, a couple staying at the shelter, fled a communal living situation in Burlington that had dissolved in drugs and violence. Both have struggled with alcohol addiction. Their last names are being withheld to protect their privacy.

Jeffrey, 50, was beat up after he tried to stop housemates from coming on to Virginia, 26. “It was really a yucky environment,” Virginia said.

They fled south to Addison County, where Virginia grew up. She is now estranged from her family.

Weeping, she told about calling her family’s home on Thanksgiving to see about having dinner with them and being rebuffed.

Jeffrey, a former construction worker who is a father of three, has been in and out of depression since shattering his heels in a 1996 scaffolding collapse.

The couple’s future?

“I can’t project. I have to stay in the here and now,” Jeffrey said. Virginia said her dream was of “a cozy little apartment with big windows and a porch.”

The shelter frequently catches people at the bottom of life, Ready said. It’s goal is “to find the good in people,” and get them to make something of it. And there are some success stories.

Another client, Krystie, came to Vermont “for personal reasons” involving a relationship; she ended up at the shelter when her dreams didn’t work out. But after a few months in it last year, she found a Job Corps office in Middlebury. The U.S. Department of Labor program helps young people 16 through 24 with training and support as they begin their work lives.

Krystie, whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy, is now working for Job Corps, helping other young people get their lives on track.