One Year After Social Worker’s Passing, Brattleboro Shelter Looks Towards Progress

Brattleboro Shelter Volunteer (Credits: Vermont Public)

Five years ago, the Groundworks Collaborative in our town, a nonprofit dedicated to fulfilling basic human needs with respect, introduced a plan for a $3.3 million drop-in center and overnight shelter to address the growing issue of homelessness.

Libby Bennett, who was managing the organization’s development and communications at the time, reflects on the initiative with optimism that prevailed back then.

Little did anyone anticipate the monumental challenges ahead, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the expansion of the state’s emergency housing voucher program, and the tragic incident on April 3, 2023, when a Groundworks social worker was fatally attacked by a resident of its Morningside House.

Brattleboro Police Department (Credits: Brattleboro Reformer)

Marking the first anniversary of the social worker’s death, the new facility is operational, yet the 30-bed Morningside House remains shuttered as the organization’s new leadership contemplates a strategy for the future.

Bennett, who recently assumed the role of executive director, acknowledges the evolving and increasingly complex needs of those they aim to serve. This realization has led to an understanding that the organization can’t possibly meet every individual’s needs.

Bennett’s career path reflects the changing dynamics of homelessness and support services. She began as a volunteer at Brattleboro’s previous shelter, where she directly experienced the difficulties encountered by the facility. Over time, these challenges contributed to the shelter’s closure in 2019, as its congregation dwindled.

Since joining Groundworks in 2012 and contributing to a merger that consolidated local food and housing programs in 2015, Bennett celebrated the opening of the $3.3 million facility in 2021, equipped with 34 beds and essential amenities. However, the pandemic escalated the homelessness crisis, with the local count of unhoused individuals tripling.

The clientele’s needs have diversified so much, shifting from predominantly alcohol-related issues to a broader spectrum of substance use disorders and mental health challenges. This was starkly highlighted by the incident leading to the temporary closure of Morningside House and the court’s decision to hospitalize the accused due to incompetence to stand trial.

Brattleboro shelter (Credits: VTDigger)

Groundworks sought the support of other providers to maintain services while the staff mourned and strategized. The organization has since revised its policies to foster a safer environment, emphasizing respect and safety for all.

Despite these challenges, Groundworks continues to journey through inflation and skyrocketing demand at its food shelf while confronting the severe shortage of affordable housing—a situation Bennett likens to a game of musical chairs with too few seats available.

As discussions about Morningside House’s future unfold, the organization is cautiously optimistic. It is awaiting funding decisions and planning a comprehensive program to reintroduce beds and services.

Bennett’s insights were further echoed at a recent documentary screening highlighting social workers’ relentless fight against poverty against a backdrop of dwindling state and federal support. This poignant reality underscores the growing demand for Groundworks’ services, a testament to the community’s enduring struggle against poverty and homelessness.