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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Charter House Opens Early Amid Growing Need

MIDDLEBURY — In response to a recent community appeal and the ever-growing need for homeless shelters throughout the country, the Charter House Coalition (CHC) in downtown Middlebury opened six weeks early this year, on Sept. 1. 

The decision came following an online post on Front Porch Forum, in which a local resident noted the number of people sleeping under Middlebury’s Cross Street Bridge and asked why the police were not involving themselves in the issue. The online post resulted in a passionate community-wide discussion about homelessness in the area and caught the eyes of both the town manager Kathleen Ramsay and the police chief Tom Hanley. 

While the community discussion was spurred by an apparent increase in the numbers of homeless people around Middlebury, this may not exactly be the case. According to Vermont’s annual statewide single-day count of the homeless, The Point-in-Time Count Report, the state’s homeless population has not increased significantly in the past five years. It is likely that homeless people in Middlebury and Addison County have simply become more visible to the rest of the population in recent months.

Despite whatever statistical truths may lay behind the issue, the community’s fervent online discussion gave the Charter House the push it needed to finally put in motion the longer season it had been considering for years. 

“It seemed like the time had come to address the additional need for shelter that exists,” said Co-Executive Director Samantha Kachmar about the Front Porch Forum discussion. 

Kachmar’s co-executive director Doug Sinclair agreed. “We hope this initiative will foster continued community discussion so that none of our neighbors will have to sleep under a bridge, on someone’s porch or under someone’s deck next summer,” Sinclair said in an interview with the Addison Independent.

And, so far, the early opening has been going “extremely well,” Kachmar said. Since they opened nearly two weeks ago, an average of ten individuals have stayed in the Charter House shelter each night, and while about four times that amount stay during the winter months, every person they can help matters to the volunteers at the Charter House.  

“The dedication of staff and volunteers and the belief by all in the importance of providing shelter for those outside was illustrated by the excitement and dedication to preparing the building for our guests six weeks earlier than expected,” Kachmar said. 

Each year, according to Kachmar, the Charter House is able to provide 34,000 free community meals, grow several thousand pounds of produce, and house 75 to 80 people, and all this is thanks to the 1,200 community members who volunteer throughout the season. 

“This is tremendous for a volunteer organization,” Kachmar said.

One-third of the volunteers working with Charter House yearly are Middlebury College students, and Luna Shen ’19.5, the student chair of CHC, will be spearheading the College’s volunteer effort during the early opening.

“I hope that more people in the community, especially Middlebury College students, understand that home and food insecurity are relevant and urgent issues in our community,” Shen said.

As Shen noted, none of this success comes easily for a non-profit, volunteer-based organization. The Charter House is on a perpetual search for more volunteers and funding, which is why the early opening had remained only an idea for so long. In an interview with the Addison Independent before the Charter House opening on Sept. 1, Kachmar and Sinclair estimated that the extra six weeks would cost an additional $12,000. 

“There will be a financial risk to opening early,” Sinclair told the Independent. “We’re jumping in and then will ask for resources from the community. The community is the reason we exist, and the community will determine if we stay open year-round.”

According to Kachmar, this approach has been relatively successful so far. Most of the Charter House’s funding comes from private donations or community foundations, and Kachmar said that “the community support generated through the Front Porch Forum conversation is bearing fruit in both volunteer interest and material donations.”

In addition to funding needed for daily housing and food costs, in order to stay open the Charter House needs money to maintain the building itself. The Charter House building in its entirety was gifted to the Coalition by the Congregation Church this past July (the organization had been renting part of the building previously), but volunteers have been working on renovations for the past three years.

“This was an amazingly generous gift that is much appreciated by CHC,” Kachmar said. “However, the building is 230 years old and there are several items that need to be addressed in order for Charter House to continue to operate a shelter.”

To name a few, the Charter House needs to bring the building up to meet updated regulation codes, replace the heating system, renovate the bathrooms and address issues regarding accessibility. One of the campaigns the Charter House is involved in, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, is specifically designed to raise money to address such issues.

“[Neighbors Helping Neighbors] is an opportunity for the community to help us make our house a home for those in our community without a home of their own,” said Kachmar.

Particularly with their early opening, but also throughout their regular season, the Charter House is always interested in working with new volunteers. Opportunities vary quite a bit: volunteers can work with the meal programs, take shifts supervising the winter shelter, work in the garden, or join the maintenance team. 

Trainings are provided on site for new volunteers during the following times: Monday Oct. 1, 6:30-8:30 p.m.; Thursday Oct. 4, 6:30-8:30 p.m.; Saturday Oct. 6, 9:00-11 a.m.; Monday Oct. 8, 10 a.m.-noon; Saturday Oct. 20, 9-11 a.m. Anyone interested in donating or volunteering is encouraged to contact Samantha Kachmar at