In winter of 1982 in Burlington, Vermont, a group of community members set out to confront the rising issue of homelessness in their city as Burlington’s growing homeless population was hard-pressed to find adequate shelter during the harsh winters. On Christmas Eve of that year, this group known as the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) opened the doors of a local community center to serve homeless adults. In its first six months, COTS provided shelter for 94 guests. Soon after in 1983, COTS moved the program to its own space and began expanding their services – and they have been ceaselessly expanding since then.
Today Burlington still has a persistent, yet little-known, issue of homelessness. In 2015, the city itself had a vacancy rate of 2.8%, compared to a national average of 4.2%. Additionally, the average price of a 2-bedroom apartment in Burlington’s home country is 44% higher than the national average. These and many other factors contribute to the rising homeless population, and the necessity of COTS’ work.
In current times, COTS has developed many different programs to address the needs of Burlington’s homeless population. In order to help its guests stay off the street, COTS provides one overnight shelter, one day-time drop-in shelter, and two family shelters. The organization also has a housing unit for homeless veterans.
The adults’ overnight shelter, the Waystation, can host 36 single adults each night. Guests are urged to stay longer than a few nights, and during their stay are expected to save 70% of their income. This program is designed to provide temporary shelter to homeless citizens so they may take needed time to reestablish themselves, without the concern of finding a place to sleep.
Combined, the two family shelters have room for 15 families. Firehouse Family Shelter was renovated from a historic fire station in 1988. The Firehouse was their first shelter designed for families, and can host up to five families. Main Street Family Shelter is a renovated Victorian home over 200 years old and can host ten families. This shelter is the result of a majorly successful capital campaign and opened in 2002.
Canal Street Veterans Housing is different from their shelters. This program gives housing – not just shelter – to veterans with no home. Veterans are allowed to stay for up to 24 months in this building’s 16 temporary apartments. The veterans can use this time to become reestablished, and at the end of their stay are ready to seek out permanent housing – sometimes in one of the 12 permanent apartments in the same building.
Additionally, COTS also opens a seasonal Winter Warming Shelter that helps protect 40 guests per night from the harsh winters of the Northeast.
Bringing It All Home
COTS also provides the only day-time drop-in shelter currently in its county. Open 365 days a year, the Daystation provides a noontime meal, access to phones, an address to receive mail, and many other services. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2012 the permanent home of the Daystation was destroyed by a flood and the program’s location has bounced around many places in Burlington since then. However COTS has recently undertaken a plan to rebuild a permanent home for the Daystation and, in the words of the campaign’s slogan, “bring it all home” by remodeling their headquarters so all services can be provided in one space: 95 North Avenue, Burlington, Vermont. With an average of 40 people being served per day in 2014, a permanent and updated home for this program will benefit hundreds of guests.
Project 95 North “will create new housing opportunities, streamlined support services, and … an anchor for all of our homeless prevention programs,” says Rita Markley. In addition to the relocation of the Daystation, 95 North will also erect 14 brand new apartments that will provide permanent and affordable housing to members of the community. These apartments will allow patrons to gain independence in their living situations by taking on an established lease while also building credit.
Along with these services, Project 95 North will also take measures to make the historic building fully ADA accessible, and implement measures to reduce storm-water runoff.
COTS workers also go beyond simply providing temporary shelter, and many of their additional programs concentrate on preventing homelessness itself. In 2008, they launched the COTS Housing Resource Center. In many cases, households can become homeless from an unforeseen event that creates a roadblock, such as a medical bill or job loss. The cost of an event may be the leading factor in the loss of housing, and COTS combats this by providing emergency, one-time grants to households in need of assistance. In its first year, the Housing Resource Center helped over 350 households avert homelessness by dodging eviction or foreclosure.
In many cases, households can become homeless from an unforeseen event that creates a roadblock, such as a medical bill or job loss. The cost of an event may be the leading factor in the loss of housing, and COTS combats this by providing emergency, one-time grants to households in need of assistance.
Many people who have become homeless may have difficulty finding permanent housing due to a damaged credit or eviction history. This is another issue that COTS confronts through its COMPASS (COMPrehensive Assistance toward Self Sufficiency) program. In this program, COTS will vouch for people who are able to pay rent, but have a damaged history of credit or tenancy. Many landlords are hesitant to accept these kinds of tenants for fear of losing money, but COTS collaborates with landlords to ease their concerns. “We pledge that if anything goes wrong in the first 18 months, we will keep the landlord whole completely, up to $5,000,” Rita says quoting a higher-than-average price of eviction. She goes on to say that when the fund originally started in 2010 it contained $85,000 and over the last 5 years, only $6,000 has been needed.
Other programs include a collaboration with the North County Federal Credit Union, an institution that will provide small loans to cover security deposits for rentals – which can help households move out of emergency shelter much more quickly. This allows the tenant to build a relationship with a financial institution, which in turn can greatly increase their credit.
Future projects for COTS include completing Project 95 North and expanding their prevention fund. Additionally, they hope expand their detailed record-keeping of past guests in their emergency shelters, including children, in order to better collaborate with other organizations assisting the homeless.
With a majority of federal programs aimed to remedy chronic homelessness, many individuals and families are unable to benefit from those programs. There are many different conditions of homelessness, and sometimes an individual needs a short-term solution to set their path on track. Whether it be a temporary warm place to sleep or intervention to help prevent a loss of housing, COTS exists to provide as much of this assistance in their community as possible. Argosy is proud to support COTS’ determined efforts to improve the quality in their community.