MIDDLEBURY — December has to count among the least popular months during which to camp out in the Green Mountain State. But many homeless people don’t have any choice but to brave the elements during the winter, and it is in recognition of that fact that the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter is scheduling its second annual “Sleep-Out” for Dec. 5 near the Otter Creek falls in Middlebury.
“It is a great way to get together and draw attention to the grave number of people who are homeless and are having a difficult time getting into housing,” Elizabeth Ready, director of the John Graham Shelter, said of the sleep-out.
Last year, approximately 40 people withstood frigid temperatures and an unforgiving wind to participate in the first sleep-out, which raised $30,000 to support programs benefitting the homeless. Ready and her fellow organizers are hoping for an even bigger turnout this year, and the early registrations look promising. Teams representing Middlebury College, the Porter Hospital nurses’ union, Addison Advisors, the Walden Project at Vergennes Union High School and the Council on Pathways from Poverty, among others, will be sending groups to the sleep-out. Participants make donations and/or collect pledges from people in support of their overnight stay for a good cause.
There will be some repeat campers this year, including Matt Wootten, a Cornwall resident and member of Addison Advisors. The Marble Works-based company dispenses financial planning services. Wootten last year was accompanied by his 7-year-old son, Sam.
While the weather last year touched participants to the core, it also drove home the plight of the homeless, Wootten said. The father-and-son team paused during that evening to reflect on the fact that the cold they were feeling was omnipresent throughout the winter for some in the homeless community.
“We started to think, ‘This is the way people live,’” Wootten recalled.
It struck another chord with Wootten, who with his colleagues counsels folks on how to invest any spare assets they might have. Wootten paused to think about people who not only don’t have any spare cash, they don’t have enough to afford life’s necessities.
Dan Adamek is a Middlebury College sophomore who will be participating in his first shelter sleep-out on Dec. 5. Adamek gained an understanding of the plight of homeless people during an internship this past summer at the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes.
“I saw the amazing work the shelter was doing and how transformative its services were,” Adamek said.
Now back at Middlebury majoring in international politics and economics, Adamek saw the sleep-out as a way of demonstrating his ongoing support of the shelter’s work.
“The whole idea is that solidarity is a verb,” he said, adding he looks forward to experiencing the sleep-out with like-minded people in a manner that will help participants feel what homeless people are going through, which in turn should inspire more work to solve a growing crisis in Vermont and throughout the country.
“Housing should be a right for all,” Adamek concluded.
Paige Ackerson-Kiely is a former assistant director of the John Graham shelter. She participated in the sleep-out last year and will do so again this year with her entire family. Her daughter, Saskia, is organizing a contingent of fellow Vergennes Union High School students.
Ackerson-Kiely was impressed with what the shelter was able to accomplish with the sleep-out proceeds last year. That money helped the shelter complete a housing project in Middlebury, provide some additional rental assistance, and send some children to summer camps.
“The ethos of the shelter is something I feel devoted to,” Ackerson-Kiely said. “It is a strange band of helpful people with a wide range of talents. I miss everyone.”
Ready has heard similar testimonials from past sleep-out participants.
“It does affect you, to have done it,” she said of the event.
Unfortunately, Ready and her shelter colleagues have seen increased demand for their services in recent years.
The John Graham Shelter and its four apartment houses are currently all full, Ready said. The shelter right now is serving several families with children. Those affected by homelessness fit into many demographics, according to Ready. There are seniors, youth, the disabled, veterans, people with chronic illnesses, folks with substance abuse issues and even the working poor, she noted.
“With a 1 percent vacancy rate for housing and with rent at around $1,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, there is a gap between what people earn and what they can pay for rent,” Ready said.
She added she has met many homeless people who work in minimum-wage jobs, who can’t pick up extra shifts and can’t secure enough subsidies to pay rent.
“The question is, do they have someone they can turn to?” Ready said of those who suddenly find themselves homeless. “For many people, this is where they end up.”
People with questions about the sleep-out can call Ready at 989-2581.
More information on this year’s sleep-out can be found at www.classy.org/middlebury/events/sleep-out-by-falls-to-end-homelessness-.... According to that website, participants had collected a combined total of $11,168 in pledges as of Tuesday.
• The number of Vermont school age children who are homeless — either in shelters or in unstable situations — rose from 785 in 2009 to more than 1,400 during the past few years. That amounts to a 54-percent increase in childhood homelessness.
• According to data from the Vermont Department for Children and Families, more than 3,000 additional households — including 1,234 children — were still homeless and sought emergency shelter in Vermont last year.
• The fair market rent for the average two-bedroom Vermont apartment is more than $1,054. A family would need to earn $3,513 monthly, or $42,156 each year, to pay the rent and keep up with other basic household bills.
Sleep-out participants are invited (along with other members of the public) to show up at 4 p.m. on Dec. 5 for a candlelight vigil on the Middlebury Green to build awareness on this issue of homelessness. Attendees are also invited to bring a bag of food, a box of diapers, toiletries, hygiene products, cleaning supplies, or a new quilt or set of sheets for a family moving into a home. Soup and bread will be offered to those who want it. Those moving on to the sleep-out are encouraged to bring a tent and warm clothing to provide some rudimentary protection against the elements.
Ready is also part of a statewide group that is urging the Shumlin administration to take some specific steps to lessen homelessness throughout Vermont. The group, known as the Council on Pathways from Poverty, last week submitted its annual report to Gov. Peter Shumlin recommending specific financial investments and policy decisions.
A link to the council’s full report can be found at the bottom of this story.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.