For years, people with addictions such as alcoholism or opioid use have suffered silently, in darkened corners or cars.
They are anonymous, often identified only when something goes wrong and their addictions intersect with police, the emergency room, or both.
For years, the growing local homeless population seemed to just disappear for the winter, if they ever were visible to the rest of society.
In 2019, addiction in the Lamoille County area gained a face, that of 26-year-old Jenna Tatro. Her opioid overdose death on Feb. 15 came just a day before what should have been her 60th day sober.
Her death spurred her parents, Greg and Dawn, to start making noise and taking action to create an organization focused on recovery and treatment, an organization in their daughter’s honor: Jenna’s Promise.
They bought an old church in Johnson and have been working to turn it into a treatment center, working to weave it in with other local organizations dedicated to treatment, recovery, mental health and community action. There’s talk of Jenna’s Promise opening a café that will be operated by people in recovery.
The Tatros’ efforts even caught the attention of Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator who’s running for president, who gave the Tatros moral support from the campaign trail.
Also in 2019, homeless people officially gained a place to stay overnight during the winter, although it involved some foot-dragging and required persistent pushing.
Lamoille Community House gained the approval of Hyde Park zoning officials to operate a winter warming shelter in the village, with Community House volunteers and workers providing supper and breakfast and rides to Morristown for social services, doctor’s appointments and job searches.
It was the culmination of more than a year of renewed effort to protect homeless people, a flame ignited by the Rev. Rick Swanson, who opened his doors at St. John’s in the Mountains Episcopal Church in Stowe.
It was a flame passed on to Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux, who let Community House use the yellow Hyde Park house that his department owned for a higher purpose — to protect and serve. It was picked up for a moment by businessman-turned philanthropist Howard Manosh, who let Lamoille Community House operate out of his old Plaza Hotel in Morristown while the Hyde Park zoning process crawled along under increasing scrutiny.
There are still segments of the community that remain dug in, resistant to the idea that “junkies” who kill or injure people on the roads, or steal their ways to their next “fix, ought to be treated as something less than criminals. Resistant to the idea of carrying vials of Narcan nasal spray, which can revive an overdosed person before they die.
And there are still segments of the community who remain skeptical about giving homeless people a place to stay, even if it’s only during the coldest months of the year, which is to say almost half the year in Vermont.
Morristown, in particular, has balked in recent years at proposals for homeless shelters in town. And a Twitter account with ties to that town’s municipal offices sent out a post blaming Community House for bringing an “undesirable” element to Morrisville. The tweet, sent on the same night that the town select board was adopting a social media policy, resulted in a three-day suspension of one town employee who retweeted it.
And then there’s a larger segment of the population that cares about the plight of the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill, but shy away from engaging with people who fit into one or more of those categories. It’s the same dilemma that well-meaning, privileged city residents feel when stepping over homeless people as they head to work or a show. They want to help, but they want someone else to help even more.
In Lamoille County, the movement toward a permanent warming shelter took a reverend on a frigid December night to open the doors to his church. And it took a sheriff to open up one of his department’s properties and then tell the assembled body politic he’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission.
The death of a 26-year-old woman has put a face on the movement toward recovery and treatment of people with substance abuse disorders. Her parents would have surely preferred that she would turn 28 this year, but they are dedicated to making sure her death can help bring some life back to a population that is simultaneously growing and withering away.