ST. ALBANS — Under a new initiative, warm hearts around the state are set to open their doors, closets and pantries to help fellow Vermonters get back on their feet and into a good home.

“This is one way for us to say you are an important part of our community and we want you here,” said Rev. Jess Moore, of St. Albans First Congregational Church. “When you’re so displaced for so long and you feel like you don’t belong, or you feel like people are looking at you, this is just to say ‘We appreciate you. We want to make your transition easy. Please feel welcome here.’”

The Welcome You Home initiative is an interfaith collaborative effort between Franklin Grand Isle Community Action, Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, Phoenix House, Grace Episcopal Church, First Congregational Church and the Sheldon Methodist Church Food Shelf to welcome families into new secure housing in apartments or homes with supplies, food and comforts to ease the strain on their shopping budgets.

“You’ve been living in an apartment for a year, so you need household goods,” said John Gorton, manager of the Sheldon Methodist Food Shelf. “You may not have dishes, you may not have pans, but we have this laundry list of things that Jess will work with the families to figure out what they need, and then we’ll have collections and hopefully donations. And these are not going to be used materials. They’re going to be brand new.”

“They shared their information with us, and that’s where Welcome You Home was born,” Moore said.

Transitioning to post-pandemic housing

The idea sprouted several weeks ago, and is inspired by initiatives from elsewhere in the state, including Addison County, when communities began banding together to prepare for pending changes to the Department for Children and Families’ hotel/motel housing initiative that was expanded to aid those experiencing homelessness due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a recent press conference, Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith previewed changes to the state’s general assistance housing plan in an effort to transition Vermonters utilizing hotels and motels through that program to more permanent housing or shelters.

Smith said the program is becoming less sustainable as the state begins to emerge from the pandemic, and noted that by July 1, the state anticipates there will be 250 fewer motel rooms available due to use by travelers and tourists. He said during the coldest pre-pandemic nights, the state would utilize between 200 and 300 rooms for Vermonters in need, which compares to roughly 2,000 rooms that have been utilized since the start of the pandemic.

The administration has submitted a plan, developed with input from community partners and organizations, to the legislature. Smith said the plan is contingent on legislative approval of Scott’s $250 million housing proposal outlined in the administration’s planned use of American Rescue Plan funds.

How it works

The idea behind Welcome You Home is simple: let others help you stock your home. Transitioning families and those in need can contact the CVOEO and Jess Graff, community action housing coordinator, or any of their partners, and families will be identified as needing a “Welcome Home” package.

“This year, we have 185 individuals ... a 140% increase in homelessness in Franklin County in the past year,” Graff said. “People have been homeless for a long time ... they need to be welcomed, they need to be de-stigmatized, and they need to make sure that their basic needs are addressed.”

All household comforts and items, such as toilet paper, shower curtain rings, shower liners, soap, deodorant, tooth brushes, laundry detergent, brooms, mops, spray cleaners and trash bags will be housed by First Congregational Church in St. Albans, while all food and personal care items will be stored at the Sheldon Methodist Food Shelf before they are distributed.

Once families are identified, the work will begin: volunteers will gather from their bushels of potatoes and rainbow carrots, cabbages and peanut butters, toothpastes and fresh towels to form Welcome You Home packages for families so that they can rest easy in their new abodes instead of worrying where they’ll get their first and next meals.

“You move into an apartment and the fridge is empty, your cupboards are empty, the freezer is empty, so we at the food shelf will put together a big package of food to fill their cupboard and fill their refrigerator and freezer with all of those food stuffs,” Gorton said.

But the initiative, Graff said, isn’t enough. In addition to resources for food and home goods, many Vermonters don’t yet have a place to go because housing inventory is low and the need is high.

“People need homes to move into,” Graff said. “This is wonderful, but it is only a small portion of the people who are experiencing homelessness that will get to receive this for the simple fact that there isn’t available housing for people to move into. Yesterday on Craigslist there were five or less apartments available in the entirety of St. Albans City and St. Albans Town. As of yesterday, we have 175 individuals experiencing category 1 literal homelessness. In a shelter or in a motel. Richford had one listing. Enosburg had none. Georgia had none. Fairfax had none.”

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