Home for Whom? COTS Feels Out a 'Hood on Transitional Housing | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Home for Whom? COTS Feels Out a 'Hood on Transitional Housing

Local Matters


Published December 4, 2013 at 1:43 p.m.

The lounge of the transitional-housing facility in Winooski - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • The lounge of the transitional-housing facility in Winooski

Struggling with opiate and alcohol addictions, Aaron Greene should have been relieved to be admitted to an inpatient program in the White River Junction VA Medical Center. But the Essex native had no idea where he would go after the six-week program was over, and he feared a return to his old life — periods of homelessness interrupted by spells of couch surfing with people who wouldn’t help him maintain sobriety.

“You have to call people your friends, and they might not be the best people to be around,” Greene said. “To not have someplace to go, it’s not a good feeling when you’re coming out of a program like that, because everything is up in the air. I didn’t want to feel like a feather, floating around.”

Greene shared his story from the lounge of a transitional-housing facility in Winooski that is owned and operated by the nonprofit Committee on Temporary Shelter, aka COTS. Since summer, his home has been this five-story building — a mix of transitional and longer-term affordable housing units — that feels like a mix between a dorm before move-in day and an antiseptic chain hotel.

Greene rested in a plastic chair near a community kitchen, while an older resident played computer games in the corner. Other residents shuffled in and out, offering the occasional, “Hey, Aaron.”

Although Greene, 26, has a high-school diploma, he knows “that’s not something that’s going to help me in the future,” he explained. “I want to have a career that’s fulfilling. I don’t want to go from menial job to menial job. I want to have to wake up, have my alarm go off at 6 a.m. and get up and take a shower and get a coffee and go to my job and meet someone, you know?”

As Greene attempts to build his life, COTS is trying to expand its housing network to serve a growing population of people with similar needs in Vermont.

The nonprofit recently informed neighbors on Burlington’s Lakeview Terrace that its administrative headquarters, at the street’s southern terminus, could be the future site of 12 to 16 units of affordable housing for single adults. On the same spot, its day station could provide a place for homeless people to meet with counselors and make phone calls between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

COTS hasn’t had a permanent day station since 2012, when flooding destroyed the former facility in downtown Burlington. After two years at a temporary location — in the United Methodist Church — the organization is looking for a new spot. When other options proved too pricey, COTS officials circled back to HQ, at the corner of North Street and North Avenue, as a potential building site.

COTS has no final design for the project, nor an estimated price tag, and is several months from filing even a preliminary plan with Burlington City Hall. But it has already reached out to neighbors to address their concerns.

COTS executive director Rita Markley acknowledges the Old North End project could be a tougher sell than any other endeavor proposed by COTS. In 31 years, COTS has grown from a single volunteer-run emergency shelter to an organization of 52 paid staffers that offers an array of services to homeless men, women and children at nine locations.

The Winooski complex where Greene lives is on a quiet stretch of Canal Street it shares with a few homes and businesses and an alternative school. Before COTS arrived, Markley said the site was nothing more than an abandoned hole in the ground.

The current day station, one block from Church Street, is adjacent to student-saturated Buell Street.

The proposed North Avenue facility, in contrast, is surrounded on all sides by residential housing, the most vocal occupants of which are expected to hail from Lakeview Terrace, which runs three blocks north along a bluff overlooking the lake.

The neighborhood has a reputation for opposing development projects. Most recently, some residents were engaged in a protracted, and ultimately unsuccessful, battle against the upscale condominium project at the street’s northern terminus. From permitting to touch-up paint, it took eight years to get the 25 rental units known as Packard Lofts built and on the market.

COTS is no stranger to such neighborhood opposition. While many of its recent building projects have sailed through with little resistance, its downtown St. Johns Hall, which provides 18 single rooms and three apartments on Elmwood Avenue, opened only after some neighbors waged a legal fight that went all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court.

In hopes of heading off similar conflict, Markley met with Lakeview Terrace neighbors earlier this month to brief them on the plans.

The meeting was cordial, according to Markley, but she said she spent much of the time combating common misperceptions about COTS clients. One person asked if those using the day station — which is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week — would be allowed to sleep outside.

Markley replied that they aren’t allowed to sleep outside — or inside — a day station.

Markley said some neighbors seemed surprised to learn that COTS requires residents of its transitional- and permanent-housing programs to enroll in school or find work and stay sober.

One week later, a few neighbors told Seven Days that they saw no problem with the project.

“I think it’s good; so many people need COTS,” said Lakeview Terrace resident Lee Bronson, while walking his dog on a recent afternoon. “I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s needed, and they’ve got a good track record.”

Another neighbor, Stephanie Kaza added that fears that the new condos would bring more traffic or alter the neighborhood have turned out to be unfounded. The University of Vermont professor said an expansion of the COTS building would be no different. 

“People were worried, but it’s all settled down,” Kaza said. “I think the same could be true here. It doesn’t seem like a big change for the street. It seems like a logical spot.”

Not surprisingly, the neighborhood Front Porch Forum has hosted lively debates on the issue. A few residents have wondered whether the expansion would prompt a parking crunch in the neighborhood and noted that the lot in front of COTS is often full, prompting visitors to park along Lakeview. Markley countered that many of the people using those lots have nothing to do with COTS and are parking there while visiting other destinations in Burlington.

Perhaps the most interesting — and lengthy — Front Porch Forum post came from a “jobless, homeless” man identified as Albert Richmond, just before Thanksgiving. After an eloquent defense of his ilk, he went on to say that he loved living on Lakeview so much, he’d set up camp on a patch of land directly below the Packard Lofts. He also complained “My neighbor in the white house often dumps his garbage and recycling over the fence onto my shelter.”

On Monday night, “the neighbor in the white house,” Alan Bjerke, called “Richmond” out as a fraud on Front Porch Forum, saying the post had been written by a resident in the neighborhood. In a post directly below Bjerke’s, FPF Moderator Michael Wood-Lewis reminded users that “signing up and posting using an alias or invented identity is a clear violation of FPF Terms of Use.”

“Cities change. Most people, no matter what they say, don’t like change, and it doesn’t matter who is moving into the neighborhood,” Markley said, several days before the bizarre online exchange occurred. “I don’t take that personally. It’s a neighborhood that feels the pressure of being in a city that’s growing and dynamic. I don’t want it to be a dispute. I believe if they understand it, they will end up supporting it.”

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling, for one, isn’t worried for Lakeview Terrace. “Generally, COTS facilities are very well managed and do not place significant burdens on our resources when folks are using the facilities,” he said. He also made the point:  “When folks have no place to be or are service-resistant, that can often create burdens for public safety resources.”

Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien said there have been no complaints about COTS since it opened the Canal Street facility in 2011. “They’ve been good neighbors,” he said.

“They” includes people like Greene, who, in a tough economy, are likely to have a hard time finding a safe, stable place to land and rebuild their lives.

“How do regular Vermonters, second and third generation Vermonters who used to work … where the jobs just disappeared and they are now working part-time security at the mall, what do we do about them?” Markley said. “Twelve to 16 units isn’t going to solve the problem, but it helps. We’re not talking shelter; we’re talking housing.”

The Canal Street facility, while home to a range of clients, caters to veterans like Greene, a member of the Vermont National Guard who spent 2010 in Kabul as part of a unit that helped train the Afghan National Police.

Greene was a gunner, manning a .50 caliber machine gun from the turret of the lead vehicle of a convoy rumbling through the city. 

“You’re not fighting a uniformed army. The people fighting against you are dressed like everyone else, so you feel vulnerable all the time,” Greene said. “Is that road going to blow up in front of me? Is that guy going to pull a gun out? Are there insurgents in the area? It gets so muddled.”

The Essex High School graduate said he returned home mentally shaken and with a back injury that led him to start abusing prescription pills and, eventually, other substances.

In his days at COTS, Greene meets with case workers, takes bus trips to treatment providers in Burlington, polishes his résumé, researches schools and has moments of quiet kinship with fellow residents in the facility, who are allowed to stay for two years if they stick with a program designed to guide them to independence. 

One recent afternoon, as Greene relaxed on the couch and flipped through stations on the flat-screen television in the lounge, another resident, Bob Lee, joined him.

Lee was the first person to move into the Canal Street facility. He had been living in the woods behind the Price Chopper in South Burlington and had a tough time getting a job interview — let alone a job.

“I looked like I climbed from under a rock in the woods — you can’t get a lot of job interviews,” Lee said. “I looked like Santa Claus that got to beat to hell.”

He told COTS officials that if they gave him a room he could get a job in six months. He was wrong; it took him five months to land a job as a cook at a nearby Mexican restaurant. Before long, though, he found an even better position — as manager of the COTS Winooski building, helping people like Greene try to move on.

“If I move out,” Greene said, “it’s nice to know someone else is going to come behind you and have the opportunity.”

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