Last December, the Lamoille Valley Housing and Homeless Coalition scrapped its plans — nearly three years in the making — to build a homeless shelter in Morristown, lacking the community support to get the idea off the ground.
But the interfaith community wasn’t about to let homeless people freeze in tents in the woods.
Seeing a need in the county, an alliance of religious leaders, police and volunteers stepped in to fill the void, choosing to beg forgiveness rather than continue to ask permission, only to be denied.
Just two days after Christmas, the Rev. Rick Swanson of St. John’s in the Mountains Episcopal Church in Stowe opened up his church doors to anyone who needed shelter from the cold as temperatures dropped to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Churches in Hyde Park and Johnson followed suit shortly thereafter in a “let’s just do this” approach.
Without showers and bathrooms, though, the churches couldn’t provide a lasting solution, and wouldn’t be able to help people move themselves out of homelessness.
After two months of folks sleeping by the altar, a more permanent shelter opened smack dab in the middle of Lamoille County with the help of Sheriff Roger Marcoux.
The Yellow House — a building set just back from Main Street in Hyde Park village — quietly opened its doors without any government funds or charitable donations and without official approval from the town.
Organizers intended the Yellow House to be a winter-only endeavor, and on April 15, it closed its doors for the season.
“Our commitment was to see people through the winter,” said Rabbi David Fainsilber of the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe.
Having done that, people who’d been staying at the shelter were sent back out into the elements, but far from going it alone.
All the people who stayed at the shelter were connected to social services to seek long-term housing options, job openings and opportunities for their children, Fainsilber said.
One family’s journey
During the winter, the Yellow House provided shelter for six to 12 people per night, amounting to 626 beds filled over just a few months.
Many of those who stayed were repeat guests who got to know the 170 to 200 local volunteers — all vetted by the Red Cross — who staffed the shelter.
One young family of five that had been homeless since the day after Christmas stayed at the shelter from the night it opened to the night it closed.
“This family had never needed services like that. They’d never been homeless. The husband had been laid off after eight years, and the whole thing was new to them. They’d never rented before, didn’t have a line of credit,” said volunteer Laura Stacey of Morrisville, who staffed the shelter three nights a week alongside her husband, Malcolm Manning.
The couple had been living in a Chevrolet Suburban with their three young kids until the vehicle was repossessed, and they were on their own in the cold.
There were days when each member of the family had to be somewhere different, with one child in the Head Start program, one in day care and another in school, and the family walked a lot of miles each day to make it work.
After her overnight shifts at the shelter, Stacey would offer to transport the family members wherever they needed to go before heading home.
Last week was school vacation, and the first week without shelter.
“There was still snow on the ground those first two days, and all the volunteers were worried about where this family would go,” said Jacquie Mauer, another volunteer.
Stacey has kept in touch with the family since their departure, and says they are staying with another family they met through the Hyde Park church they began attending after finding the shelter.
Both parents have found jobs, at least part-time, and were able to renew their driver’s licenses. They’d expired, and the family didn’t have money to renew the IDs.
Now, Marcoux is helping them find a safe vehicle, and the family is looking for more permanent housing. However, affordable rentals can be hard to find in Lamoille County.
“I didn’t realize how bad the housing situation was in this county until I started volunteering,” Stacey said. “And social services won’t help them if they try to get a two-bedroom apartment, because they have three kids — even though the kids are all the same gender. Three-bedroom apartments are even scarcer. People are always working on senior housing, but what about for young families?”
For Manning and Stacey, working at the shelter was a rewarding experience. They heard stories from guests about why they needed a place to stay for the night, and played with the kids to give the parents a bit of a break.
And on the awake overnights, they checked in on people periodically, and “I got to read all night,” Manning said.
Manning also dug into his own pockets to provide The Yellow House with a wireless internet booster so guests with a smartphone or laptop could “binge-watch their favorite shows,” if they wanted to.
“The shelter was a labor of love for volunteers. People just need their basic needs met, and we were able to provide them with a safe place to sleep, a warm meal and a shower,” said Mauer.
“Our mission was to provide a platform for folks to get greater help where they were willing,” Fainsilber said.
This summer, the interfaith community will host a volunteer appreciation day for everyone who helped make the shelter possible this winter.
The number of people without housing in Lamoille County nearly tripled from 22 in 2016 to 64 in 2017, according to an annual point-in-time count taken on a single day in January, and the closest shelters were more than an hour away, in Burlington and Vergennes.
Organizers are waiting to hear whether the shelter will be granted official permits by the Hyde Park planning and zoning offices for next winter.