Hunger hits Williston

By Sky Barsch
Observer correspondent

Homelessness and hunger continue to affect the region, with hunger and decreasing resources posing a larger problem than homelessness in Williston. People are literally and increasingly choosing between eating and heating their homes, said Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf Director Rob Meehan.

A national effort to bring attention to the issue, Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, is under way until Nov. 17. Local organizations, such as the Committee on Temporary Shelter, or COTS, and the Hinesburg Food Shelf, are hopeful that the attention brings resources in the way of donations and volunteers. Champlain College and the University of Vermont are holding public demonstrations to bring awareness to homelessness and collecting donations to help.

“We’re definitely impacted during the holiday season,” said Meehan, whose organization serves 2,000 Chittenden County families each month. “There’s such a rising need. Heating costs are going up, gas prices are insane. Food prices are increasing. People living below the poverty line need our services to offset their heating costs.”

The Vermont Foodbank has reported that it is struggling to provide enough food, affecting its 270 members. The Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf is the largest member, Meehan said.

Meehan predicts this will be a particularly bad year. Even though many social programs are in place for those in need, low wages, lost manufacturing jobs and increasing costs mean more people will have a harder time putting food on their tables.

“We will see whether this will be a particularly bad year. People are going to get hit hard once the cold weather comes. Home heating costs have really skyrocketed – really big increases around 17 percent. It’s pretty common sense stuff, when you’re faced with heating and eating, it’s a pretty unfortunate place to be.”

Rita Markley, executive director of COTS, said there has been a dramatic increase in the number of homeless families in the past five years.

“What’s new for Chittenden County and many communities is many of these families have working parents. So it may very well be someone who serves you coffee at a restaurant in Williston finds themselves at the end of the day turning to a shelter,” Markley said. “All expenses have gone up, and wages have remained relatively flat. Many people are cobbling together two or three retail jobs, working weekends and nights, which if you’re a parent with small children, is enormously difficult.”

Markley said the face of homelessness is changing. It is often working parents with children who are living in emergency shelters.

“We’ve served homeless families from every community in Chittenden County this year. The number of single adults has gone down, but the number of families has gone up,” Markley said, using the following figures to illustrate her point: in 2005, the number of households who needed emergency shelter in Chittenden County was 365; the number last year was 788. Those are families who are staying in shelters and no-frills motels and trying to get to work and school.

Hunger, more than homelessness, affects Williston residents, said Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig.

“As far as we know, we don’t see homeless people in Williston. Nothing’s been reported,” Macaig said, when asked about the subject. “But hunger, we do suspect, through the church organizations and different schools, there are people who are short of food supplies.”

Organizations that serve people experiencing hunger, Macaig said, are two churches – Williston Federated Church and The Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic church. Each has a food shelf that serves anyone in the community, not just parishioners.

Town tax dollars support social organizations that serve those needs as well, he said.

The Hinesburg Food Shelf, serving 160 different area families in a year and 60 families per month, is another pantry that relies on the Vermont Foodbank. And it is feeling the pinch.

“It is hard to place an order,” said Doug Gunnerson, who runs the Hinesburg Food Shelf. “The selection is limited making it necessary to reorder later in the month. Even so, some items are just not available. The Foodbank is our key supplier. We end up cutting back on Foodbank orders and increase our purchases in local stores at a much higher cost. We must cut back to stay within our limited funds.”