[Hpn] Down and out in St. Johnsbury: Homelessness grows as town looks the other way; Vermont Guardian; 11/26/2004
Morgan W. Brown
Morgan W. Brown" <firstname.lastname@example.org
Sat, 27 Nov 2004 15:25:22 -0500
Below is a forwarded copy of an article which may be of interest to
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
Norsehorse's Home Turf:
Friday, November 26, 2004
[statewide weekly publication]
Local News section
Down and out in St. Johnsbury: Homelessness grows as town looks the other way
By Dan DeWalt | Special to the Vermont Guardian
ST. JOHNSBURY — B. appears first thing every morning at the doorstep
of Northeast Kingdom Community Action. His face mostly obscured by a
pulled-down hat and an upturned collar, B. looks 70. He's 52.
Homeless for the past seven months after he and his wife divorced, B.
said at the first of every month, his Social Security check can buy
him about three nights in a motel. When the money runs out, he spends
his nights in an open-air shelter. He comes in to NEKCA every morning
for a doughnut, a cup of coffee, and help finding housing.
"The people here are mighty good to me. They're helping me try to get
into an apartment," he said.
It won't be easy, admits Penny Hamilton, NEKCA's family and housing
support specialist. "Affordable units are filled and are not being
vacated. The problem that we have is that a lot of housing units
require a credit report."
B. agrees. "Yesterday [a housing management company] gave me the
dickens because I couldn't give a list of every landlord I've had and
when in the last five years."
Not everyone in the community shares B.'s enthusiasm for NEKCA and
other nonprofit groups. In December 2003, after NEKCA asked the St.
Johnsbury Selectboard to channel a $250,000 federal grant to NEKCA to
develop a parent/child center, The Caledonian-Record accused the
organization of "trickle-down, Washington-based, pork project
"There was a chance to go out and grab more taxpayers' money and like
other nonprofits in our area, NEKCA wanted to be first in line," the
paper editorialized. "After all, it is grant money — state and federal
— that enables these nonprofit groups to operate and be comfortably
Asked about homelessness in the community, Caledonian-Record Managing
Editor Ellie Dixon said it was not a problem. "St. Johnsbury police
have told us that there are no people sleeping under the bridge or in
the streets," she said.
"There are many dysfunctional situations where people fall out with
their families and move around, staying with friends or relatives, but
there is no homelessness in St. Johnsbury," Dixon declared.
The St. Johnsbury police chief did not return a phone call. But a
police dispatcher who refused to give his name said, "Homelessness is
not really an issue for us here."
"There is nothing that we can do without this community waking up,"
said Hamilton, who in the past month has dealt with eight homeless
families. "Local people have been pushing the snooze button."
Some area churches and pastors are getting involved in the effort,
planning a letter writing campaign to the paper aimed at raising
townspeople's awareness of the issue.
"There is definitely an awareness that there is a problem, said Jay
Sprout, pastor of the North Congregational Church. "We bemoan the fact
and feel powerless to do anything about it."
But he said when the church tried to open a shelter several years ago,
it was met with NIMBY — not in my back yard – thinking. "People are
afraid of crime, of discomfort of living closely with the homeless. We
associate homelessness with a moral lapse," he said.
Norman Lanman, integrated housing specialist at NEKCA, agreed. "People
tend to look at the homeless and say it's of their own making; their
homelessness is by choice."
Today, James Buzby lives in a comfortable apartment at St. Johnbury's
Depot Square, a complex that accepts Section 8 housing vouchers. But
five years, ago, after a painful divorce at age 60, "I got a tent at a
yard sale and stayed drunk in the woods for two years," Buzby said. "I
hadn't known what an aching heart was. It was a couple years of
As his third winter approached, Buzby said a local lawyer befriended
him. "He started taking me to dinner, and when I had a chance for a
job, he took me to Ames and bought me clothes to help me get the job,"
At the same time, he went to Depot Square where he met Gail Alair, who
helps people obtain Section 8 housing. "A very large population seems
to be homeless here," Alair said. "I have called NEKCA and asked them
to please send no more applications for housing."
But Buzby was lucky. "She took a chance on me, showed empathy, and
gave me an apartment," he said. "They gave me my first month's rent
free, then NEKCA gave me a month, which enabled me to get a paycheck
to meet my rent. Having the apartment made it possible to consider
stopping drinking. I couldn't have done it living in the woods."
Buzby found a better job, reached retirement age, and now, nearly five
years since coming out of the woods, he said he no longer drinks, can
pay his rent, and survives on his Social Security pension.
About St. Johnsbury, Buzby is blunt: "The town has an attitude. If
you're poor and undereducated, you must be a druggy. There is a great
divide here between the haves and have-nots. [The townsfolk] want
professional people, they don't want poor people living here.
Everything is centered around St. Johnsbury Academy."
The academy's shadow
The prestigious St. Johnsbury Academy high school casts a long shadow
in town, providing many well-paying jobs and lending the prestige of
its excellent reputation, which relies in part on the town's image.
During a controversy about local drug use, then-headmaster Bernier
Mayo opposed a methadone clinic and resisted the notion that St.
Johnsbury had a drug problem.
Later, as a state senator, Mayo heard testimony from methadone users
that made him realize that he had been wrong. He wrote two op-ed
articles that were published in the Record about his change of heart,
referring to his earlier attitude as that of a "cultural bigot."
"When I wrote those articles, it was an electric shock to a lot of
people," said Mayo, who just lost his bid for reelection.
Greg McDonald, a probation officer who was recently named the state's
Agency of Human Services field director in the region, said Mayo's two
articles caused so much discussion in town that ultimately the
selectboard unanimously approved the methadone clinic.
"There's a lot of dialogue, pride, and history in this community. It's
all about relationships and who we are as a community," McDonald said.
There has not always been dialogue, however. Over the past several
years, St. Johnsbury residents were twice surprised with some
"The [St. Johnsbury Correctional Facility] furloughed a hell of a lot
of prisoners into town without telling us," said Mayo. "We have
hundreds of furloughed prisoners in our community that the prison will
not tell us about."
McDonald, who is finishing his stint with the probation office, said
the closure several years ago of apartments that had housed furloughed
inmates "created some bad feeling" in the town.
"Notification of town officials should have been done up front,"
McDonald said. "When we closed the apartments, [the inhabitants]
showed up at NEKCA, which got swamped. There are a lot of barriers for
people with criminal records to get housing. It's setting them up for
failure by not having a place to live."
The town's second surprise was the sudden introduction of a needle
exchange program by Vermont CARES, a community organization that
targets AIDS, again without much communication with town officials.
In contrast, NEKCA was forthcoming about its parent/child center, but
they still ended up filing a lawsuit before the town granted the
"Some people think we're pretty upscale and if we could rejuvenate
some businesses, we could be OK," said McDonald. "But it takes more
"There's probably more emphasis on developing businesses downtown and
to replenish the stores," concurred Dixon at The Caledonian-Record.
But according to Mayo, if future development is to acknowledge and
address homelessness, "people of influence in the area have to be
convinced that taking care of the homeless is not a bad idea. We need
someone with gravitas, not the people who gather at the post office"
to vigil or protest."
"We try to put a face on [homeless] people instead of stigmatizing
them," said McDonald. "It's a process, and it's not going to happen
As darkness descended over the town one evening last week, B. headed
to bed, passing a sign that proclaims: "St. Johnsbury, Where Rivers
and People Come Together."
"Some people just don't give a hoot," he shrugged. "That's just the way it is."
Posted November 26, 2004
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
Norsehorse's Home Turf: