The city of Newport is poised for major economic development. But a lingering social problem seems to have gotten worse this winter. Community activists say they are seeing a rise in homelessness in a city with no emergency shelter.
On Newport’s Main Street, Brenda’s Restaurant is an early morning oasis for people who may have spent a bitterly cold night outdoors.
Chatting with her friend Neil Morrissette, owner Brenda LePage says she’s happy to feed them for free.
“These people that do stay out, I don’t know how they do it, I really don’t. So I guess, how it works, Neil —you call the police?” she asks.
“Or vice versa,” he answers.
“Or they call you, whatever it takes to get these people some help.”
Right now, help is coming in small packages. On a table, Morrissette displays one of about 30 emergency kits he and others have put together. Police have been giving them to homeless people.
Morrissette says his outreach is motivated by his Christianity. He’s also a recently elected City Councilor, and part of a new coalition of community leaders aiming to provide more than hand warmers and space blankets to a homeless population they say is largely hidden. Many couch surf or sleep in cars.
On a recent frigid night about 24 showed up at a Newport medical facility. Some were transported to other towns with shelters; others had to be turned away. So a grassroots group is trying to open a shelter downtown.
But Newport City Manager John Ward says funding cannot come from city coffers.
“The regular taxpayers cannot afford to take another burden, that is, the homeless, when we are already doing what we can to help people survive here now,” Ward says.
Barbara Morrow, of Newport’s Community Justice Center, says some of the neediest people become homeless after they leave the Northeast Vermont Corrections Facility.
“There is also just a lack of housing stock that is affordable for young people just starting out,” she adds.
Merton Bangemann-Johnson, director of the non-profit housing organization Rural Edge, says some of that cheap housing — admittedly substandard — is being torn down to make way for Northeast Kingdom development projects launched by Jay Peak resort’s Bill Stenger.
“It’s changing for the better and we’re really pleased that there is some economic movement happening in Newport," says Bangemann-Johnson. "Part of the challenge, though, is with that economic movement some folks are being displaced,”
He predicts the coalition to combat homelessness will face zoning and financial obstacles, but he hopes Rural Edge, local churches and social services will come together to build a homeless shelter in Newport, and to develop more affordable housing.