‘Like a Big Family’
More People Turn to White River Junction Shelter for Support
By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
White River Junction — Brittney Bennett and Janna Jarvis could be sisters.
They laugh at the suggestion — Bennett, 24, is originally from Connecticut, and Jarvis, 36, previously lived in Randolph. It’s not so much about their looks, either. Both women boast thin, athletic frames, but Bennett’s long, dark hair remains pulled back from her square face and light complexion, while Jarvis, a little bit taller and a little bit tanner, has blond highlights in her bangs, cut straight across her narrow forehead.
It’s more about the way the women interact: Laughing, teasing. Joining each other at a nearby picnic table for a cigarette and a chat, to talk about their kids, to talk about life. Their newborn daughters were born eight days apart, and they helped each other pick out baby names. (Bennett chose Isabella; Jarvis, Olyvia.)
Mostly they laugh because, as close as they they’ve become, they’ve known each other for only a few months. Their friendship grew out of circumstance: After hardship befell them and each woman spent two months moving from motel to motel just to get by, they met when they became roommates at the Byrne House, a homeless shelter for families at the Upper Valley Haven.
Their story is one that, Haven officials say, has become increasingly common in the Upper Valley: The economic crisis of 2008 dramatically intensified demand for basic services, said Haven Executive Director Sara Kobylenski.
The number of families who spend some part of the year at Byrne House has usually hovered around 40, remaining fairly level because of its eight-family maximum capacity.
But more than 1,000 families use the Haven’s food shelf every month, up from 450 families when Kobylenski took the reins three years ago. And an estimated 50 people are homeless in the Upper Valley every night.
“Somehow I don’t have any reason to think we’ll be licking the poverty problem in the Upper Valley any time in my lifetime, probably,” she said.
A second Haven shelter for adults without minor children, the Hixon House, opened in June 2010. Last year, a total of 146 adults spent some time at the Hixon House, which averaged 20 people a night.
Before that, adult individuals in need of temporary housing were forced to travel as far as Claremont, Rutland, Barre, Lancaster, Plymouth and Keene. From November to April, they could apply for the Tri-County Community Action Program’s 10 Bricks hotel vouchers, which served 275 adults during the 2009-10 winter season — up from 196 the year prior.
Only 151 people used the program in 2006-07.
Stories like Bennett’s and Jarvis’s are also increasingly common. People who rely on the Haven — from those who stop by to pick up some of the 100,000 pounds of produce distributed yearly, to the groups and individuals who use it as a temporary home — have come to see it as more than just a bed or a roof or a meal, but as a foot in the door to a network of resources, and a community that can help navigate them.
“I never knew what structure was until they taught me how to live a structured life,” Bennett said recently, sitting outside the Haven at a picnic table with Jarvis. “It kind of becomes like a big family. You need somebody that you’re able to talk to. It’s hard.”
“When your life is so in shambles,” Jarvis added, “and everything is so out of whack and you’re going from motel to motel … you get in here, and everything gets done.”
That support is being provided to the people who need it most, said Kobylenski. Many people who were living “on the edge,” so to speak, teetered off into poverty during the Great Recession. They’re families like those that used to benefit from two incomes, but now only have one. Sometimes they’re families that previously donated to the food shelf, but now need it to feed their own children.
“We have people that are coming to the food shelf who have never used social services of any sort in their lives, who have not needed the help to get by,” Kobylenski said. “That’s a population of people that’s new to the Haven.”
And even as the economy begins to show signs of improvement, life for many people may continue to get worse, Kobylenski said. She pointed to a theory that “those who are most fragile in terms of getting their most basic needs back continue to go downhill for another 18 months” after the economy begins to turn around.
“And we’re testing that theory right now,” she said. “We’re watching for this, because there’s some belief that things are starting to improve now, and if that’s the case, we’re optimistic that maybe this trend of increasing demand on our services every single month for the last three years might continue only for another 18 months.
“Of course what we don’t know is … when we then get to that point, will the need decrease some? Will it simply level off at that new normal? What will it look like for this community? And we don’t know yet.”
‘People Need Things’
On a recent Tuesday morning, the front door at the Haven’s Route 5 compound rarely closed all the way before somebody else was there to open it. The steady stream of people is pretty normal these days, volunteers said.
“They help just so many people, it’s insane,” said Amy Blanchette as she volunteered in what is known as the “sorting room.” Blanchette, who was living at the Haven but has since moved out, has friends who have stayed in shelters that are little more than a clean bed and a roof over your head, she said. But to her, the Haven is different.
“It’s nothing like that here,” she said. “You’re family.”
Kobylenski said it can be particularly difficult to get donations during this time of year, when the public’s attention is turned to other things — spring cleaning, graduation, getting ready for summer.
In the kitchen area, near the front entrance, volunteer Lisa Cadow has started to prepare a cheese-less frittata. Cadow, who runs Vermont Crepe & Waffle out of Norwich, started volunteering once a week last December for the Haven’s Healthy Eating Program, which shows people how to use healthy food available at the food shelf to make interesting meals, and provides easy directions and a bag of ingredients for people to take home.
Past dishes have included tomato and ginger soup with yellow peppers, mashed potato and turnip, ratatouille and green bean casserole.
“It’s an amazingly innovative program,” Cadow said, adding that it presents an interesting challenge because the meals must be made using whatever happens to be available in large quantities at the food shelf that day — hence the frittata sans cheese.
In the sorting room next door, volunteers spend seven hours a day, five days a week, sifting through bag after bag of donated clothing. In addition to its staff of 30, the Haven relies on 430 volunteers to keep the organization running, Kobylenski said. More than 150 people volunteer at the Haven any given week.
Some of them are members of the greater Upper Valley community, like Cadow. And others, like Blanchette, are current and former Haven guests looking to give back. Blanchette sorts the clothes into categories — men’s or women’s, shoes or bedding, kids’ or babies’. If the clothes are in decent condition, they’re washed and put out on the rack for the public to take.
“They go out just as fast as they put them out,” said Brenda Bartlett, another guest who was working in the sorting room with Blanchette.
“A lot of people need things.”
‘You’re Not Alone’
In the afternoon, the another Haven-owned home — Bev’s House, named for the late community and social justice activist Beverly Fowle Fiertz — is teeming with children who have arrived for the after-school program, available to current and former child guests of Byrne House. Volunteers from Dartmouth College and the wider community volunteer to help with homework or simply watch the youngsters as they play on swings, make art, play music — just be kids.
The program is open to children from kindergarten to high school. Last month, there were 12 children participating, ages 6 to 13, including Morgan Asselin, 8, a former Byrne House guest who now lives in downtown White River Junction.
Sitting upstairs, she used white crayon to draw stars and a moon, which reappeared on the page after she glossed over them with blue watercolor paint.
“It’s really fun. We get to do a lot of stuff,” she said.
In a room across the hall, volunteer Allyson Ledoux plays an electric keyboard as she teaches Megan Fogg, 9, another former guest, how to create rhythms and beats by singing along.
“Something magical just happened,” Ledoux tells Fogg after the youngster correctly sings back a tune. “You just did that all in your head. … Look at that smile on your face.”
At the other end of the Haven property, adult guests of the Hixon House are gathering in its cafeteria — some of them returning from jobs or volunteering, and many of them waiting for one of three meals the Haven provides its guests each day.
Pam Picknell had stayed in the original home family shelter with her family in the 1980s, she said, before moving on, getting a job, and helping raise her grandchildren in the Newport-Springfield area. After winning two bouts with cancer and with the grandkids out of the nest, she decided to move back to White River Junction to get her old job back, but needed help getting back on her feet, and moved into the Hixon House.
“The lives that they’ve touched, I can’t even fathom. … The transition this program has made from this little tiny house to all of this,” she said, pointing to a picture of the original home hanging on a wall, and then gesturing to the building around here.
“They go through that whole process with you,” she said. “You’re not alone. And it’s just crazy.”
But the Hixon House is the shelter that almost never was. Amid protests from neighbors who raised safety concerns about the size and location of the shelter, the Haven abandoned a proposal to build the shelter on Pine Street in 2006, and was turned down in an attempt later that year to build on Mechanic Street.
As the Haven forged ahead with plans to build the Hixon House in a lot adjacent to its Route 5 headquarters, which used to be the barn-house family shelter until the new Byrne House was opened in 2004, residents continued to protest. Thirty-three townspeople signed a petition in opposition to the expansion, which was presented to the Zoning Board of Adjustment during a meeting in 2008.
Yet two years after it opened its doors, many of those concerns appear to have been quelled. Longtime Hartford Avenue resident Doc Simon was one of several neighbors to voice apprehension during that meeting, but ultimately, Simon said last week, the Hixon House hasn’t been a problem to him.
“I’m completely satisfied by it,” he said. “They seem to be over by themselves. There’s nobody crossing the yards.”
“It hasn’t turned out to be a problem at all, now has it? I’m not even aware that they’re there,” said Doris Grigel, who lives nearby on Demers Avenue with her husband, George, who had expressed concerns around the shelter’s opening.
“It never materialized,” she said.
Several other residents who voiced concerns during that meeting did not respond to requests for comment. Kobylenski said she has been in touch with many of them and they have voiced feelings similar to those expressed by Simon and the Grigels: The shelter was the dog that never barked.
And for people like Terri Cardillo, it filled a void.
Cardillo said she waited for more than a month to get into the Hixon House; other guests said it took them as long as two months to become guests.
“They need to have more of these,” Cardillo said. “There’s a lot of people that are homeless out there. … You can only couch-surf for so long.”
When you’re homeless, she said, “you feel like you’re on a one-way street — a dead-end street.” But that feeling is tempered when you’re at the Haven, she said, where case managers help guests connect with nonprofit and governmental agencies to help get their lives back together.
“The people here try really hard to lead you in that right direction,” she said, “but they ask for us to try to do it on (our) own.”
‘An Amazing Resource’
At the end of a long day, Bennett returned to the kitchen of the apartment she’s staying at in the Byrne House. There are two wings of the Byrne House; four families stay in each. More than 20 children are at the house on any given night, Kobylenski said.
The setting sun brightened the room, which resembles the communal area of a college dormitory: lightly colored walls, high ceilings, large windows, two refrigerators, an island table in the kitchen.
As she cooked a hot homemade dinner — chicken and mashed potatoes — Bennett explained that, just recently, she had learned that infant Isabella was born with Down syndrome.
She and Jarvis bonded over their struggles with their newborns: Jarvis’ child, Olyvia, was born six weeks premature.
Tara Mullen, of Vershire, one of the Haven’s two community case managers, walked in from the yard, looking for a chat. The talk turned to the baby. “You’re in the beginning of this revolving door. … It’s an adventure,” Mullen said.
Bennett responds with confidence.
“It’s a challenge,” she tells Mullen, “but I can handle it. You’d be proud if you could see the way I’m going about my day. … Good will come, and if the bad comes, I can handle it.”
“And,” Mullen responds, “there will be support.”
Later, Mullen said, it’s that support that drew her to work at the Haven.
“Its name — it is a haven. It’s amazing the number of calls we get, like, ‘I called you because nobody else would return my call,’ ” Mullen said. “It’s an amazing resource.”
Jarvis’ daughter, Olyvia, is waking up from a nap. Chicken and mashed potatoes still on the stove, Bennett walks over, and takes the infant in her arms.
The two women stand over her, smiling.
“You can tell she’s happy here,” Bennett said.