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As the Waitsfield dog warden, I receive lots of calls for dogs running at large, lost, with and without tags, killing chickens and scaring the heck out of walkers and runners alike. But nothing prepared me for the call I received last Tuesday, January 13, from a woman at the Montpelier Humane Society.
She had received an anonymous call from someone saying that a man
and woman were parked for the last few days in the parking lot of the
Moretown General Store, and that there were three dogs in the truck
with them. The woman caller was worried that the people would seek
refuge indoors and leave the dogs in the truck overnight, and that
quite possibly the dogs would die of exposure. I informed the girl
calling from the Humane Society that Moretown was out of my
jurisdiction and that I would think about what to do or whom to call.
After hanging up, the thought of who would take the initiative to find out why these people were sleeping in their truck and what was going to happen to them with the forecast dipping to the negative teens and twenties for the week rested with me. After careful consideration I determined that this was not just a call for the dog warden but a call for humanitarian concern. So, I drove to Moretown.
I spoke with the women at the store and learned little more as to why these people were using the parking lot as a motel, and I approached the truck and asked the couple if they would step inside for a coffee. The woman complied, but the man insisted he would stay in the truck. I spoke with "Julie" at length about what was happening to them and she told me that one by one they lost their jobs and that they did not have friends or family who would help them.
"Doug" ran the snow removal and sanding trucks in a couple of towns, but after having hernia surgery and recovery, his job was no longer available. As for Julie, some of you may have heard about her case here in Vermont. She was a home provider for the mentally disabled for 11 years. Never had she had any trouble with her charges or the state until the final one. Her charge was determined to walk in the rain, refuse her medication and become troublesome. Julie had asked the state workers for help, saying that she could not control her charge and that the woman was becoming increasingly troublesome. The state workers did nothing immediately until one day Julie called 911. (At present her case is under investigation and the state and the family of the charge are trying to determine the woman's cause of death stating that Julie was negligent and abusive. I don't have all of the information, but this is what I was able to learn from the various people I spoke to about Julie in determining how much help this couple was going to need.)
But I am getting ahead of myself. It is now 4 p.m. on Tuesday, the sun is going down and the temperature is dropping like a stone. I have already called the local churches looking for a cot or a room to put these people to no avail. I asked Julie to stay put and that I would return as soon as was possible and drove to a Fred Messer's home on the North Road. When he saw the look on my face and the tears in my eyes, he invited me in. I explained what was happening and that I hoped his apartment was vacant or even room on a floor somewhere. Without a moment's hesitation he said, "Go and collect them and bring them here immediately." His generosity overwhelmed me as he hadn't asked me any questions. He just made the determination that he could and would help.
So I returned to the Moretown Store and, after putting gas in their vehicle, we drove to Fred's home. The couple carried their elderly dogs in one by one and there they settled down for the night. We put a mattress, blankets and pillows on the floor for them and Fred gave them a loaf of bread with peanut butter and jelly and apple juice to eat and drink, and in the morning made them hot rolls and coffee. I had promised to call every state agency the following morning in order to seek help for them, which I did.
On Wednesday morning, I called the Vermont Office of Economic Opportunity in Waterbury and spoke with an agent there who gave me a few numbers to call. Included in these numbers was the Barre office for Economic Services. They said, "Come on in. We will see them today." And that is what we did. We went to see them.
When we arrived in the parking lot, Julie looked at me and said she had been there twice and maybe even three times but that they would not help. So I went in and sat there while the social worker interviewing Julie said that in order for her to give help to Julie she had to have a job and a place to live so that they could help with either food, electricity, heating or rent. I asked her about the homeless and the unemployed, to which she said there is the Good Samaritan Shelter for the night available to them.
We all know that without an address, without a phone, there is not an employer out there willing to give someone without a fixed base of operation a job. I brought this to the social worker's attention and she said she knew that, but there was nothing she could do. Imagine that. Tens of thousands of the taxpayers' monies are allotted to state agencies to help the needy and all she could recommend is an overnight shelter. No help for those in an emergency situation unless they have children or are mentally disabled.
I called my husband, Darryl Forrest, and asked him what I could do next. He said to call the town administrator, Valerie Capels, and ask her if there was a group that the town contributed to that might help. She told me to call a woman who works for an agency focused on helping only abused mothers after hours when normal offices were closed.
We brainstormed and said we would call each other back. In the meantime I called the offices of Kingsbury, Brothers and Griffin and Griffin asking for a trailer or heated garage to park these people in, but they had nothing that could accommodate them. Then the woman from the abused mothers agency called me back and said that she and her husband would kennel the dogs for the next few days and pay for them to stay at the Wait Farm Motor Inn until Saturday morning! (I recently learned that the owners generously donated one of the three nights.)
They were going to do what the state would not do. Give them safe shelter until we could find them real help. Darryl and I gave them carte blanche to eat at the Spotted Cow and we put as much gas in their car as needed for them to get around.
I also called Doug's brother Charles and told them what was happening and could he help in some way and let the past stay past. He said that there was a year-round lake house on Lake Champlain that he would ready for them, but it needed propane, and he wanted to be sure someone would reimburse him and asked that Doug and Julie do everything in their power to find work and pay him back for the propane and future electricity.
That Saturday, we sent Charles a check for $600 -- 200 of which was donated by another Waitsfield resident. We all agreed that this would be a one-time handout and that they both needed to do all in their power to help themselves. They were humbled by the generosity of so few and said that they would take work wherever they could find it.
With this story told, what is to happen in the future should another family need help? Why isn't there a state agency with available housing to give more than just a bed for the night in some shelter with the same rules as for the mentally disabled, like in Waterbury? Why isn't there help for those who are willing and able to work but do not have an address or phone for contact info? And above all, the State of Vermont would be better suited to helping those in need if they were to convert the McFarland State Office Building by renovating each and every office into a transitory room to house people instead of individual workers who do not have a vision to help people. Their lobby could be converted into a common room, a common kitchen could be installed in their lunch room and beds instead of desks would be of more help than what is currently being offered.
In closing, I am hoping there is someone out there who could help me with organizing a citizen group here in The Valley that would offer a safe haven should this situation come across my life again. It is saddening, maddening and humbling to have had to go through this situation, and I truly hope and pray the outcome of anyone needing help will be a good one.
God help us all in a time of need.
Marie Leotta lives in Waitsfield.