As the winter months grind to a close, the region’s largest community development organization is taking advantage of the lingering cold to raise awareness of the issue of homelessness.
RuralEdge kicked off their annual “Rural Reality Campaign” this week, which is designed to both raise the issue of, and give people the opportunity to experience first-hand, the challenges faced by rural homeless.
The subject is one that usually flies under the radar in the Northeast Kingdom, according to the event’s organizers.
“In the Northeast Kingdom and Vermont, folks don’t realize it’s an issue,” said Regional Economic Services Director Kelly Greaves, citing examples of the “hidden homeless,” who spend the night in ATM lobbies, or vacant buildings to keep warm.
Still others, who are classed as “vicariously housed,” spend their nights couch-surfing, which can present as much of a challenge as actual homelessness.
“It’s not their own home, it’s not their space,” said RuralEdge Community Engagement Specialist Dan Haycook. “It’s still that question of, ‘Am I going to be able to stay there tonight, where am I going to wake up tomorrow, do I have to call another friend or knock on another person’s door?’ It’s not consistent, it’s not stable.”
While the causes of homelessness can range from domestic violence, health issues, runway youth, or even seasonal jobs, officials agree there are a lot of preconceptions assigned to the status. These preconceptions can create roadblocks to recovery.
“To be honest, some people have this sense of being ashamed, and not wanting to reach out for the help they need,” said Haycook. “Which is heartbreaking, because you know, that’s why we’re here.”
While this means that the number of actual displaced individuals is probably higher than current counts indicate, reports show that Vermont has nearly doubled the number of chronically homeless individuals since 2013, while 39% of the homeless population are under the age of 18.
It’s numbers like these that RuralEdge wants to drive home with their annual “Rural Reality Campaign.”
Beginning with a “Meal for a Mission” at QBurke Mountain on Thursday, March 5, the event aims to raise awareness and end homelessness in the Northeast Kingdom.
The dinner is followed by the Overnight Vigil, held Friday, March 6 in Bandstand Park in Lyndonville, which will give participants the chance to experience what a Vermont night is like without shelter.
“It’s bitterly cold out there, and you’ll find people who participate in that event, in the morning, they’re not very happy,” explained Haycook “They’re uncomfortable, they’re very cold, they’re very tired, they’re worn out. And that’s something that people face every day, not just for one single night.”
The Overnight Vigil will feature food deliveries, and music by Kali Stoddard-Imari. Participants are welcome to stop by throughout the night, and while there will be warming barrels, are encouraged to dress warmly.
The vigil will break with the final event of the campaign- a Pancake Breakfast at the Lyndonville Firehouse, cooked and served up by local firefighters. The breakfast begins at 7 a.m., and is $7 for adults, $3 for children, and free for those who spend the night in the park.
Participants in the Overnight Vigil will speak about their experiences at the breakfast.
All proceeds from the events will go to fight homelessness in the Northeast Kingdom.
“Housing is a basic necessity, and it’s the most important necessity. If you don’t have housing, you have nothing,” said Haycook.