From the 95 North Avenue Ribbon Cutting: Why it Matters and Appreciation
Rita Markley, COTS executive director, gave the following speech on April 3, 2017, at the ribbon-cutting event that celebrated the completion of the 95 North Avenue renovation.
This project has never been just about a building, but about what happens within it.
We are bringing together in one location four vital resources for struggling Vermonters: new affordable housing units on the second floor, case management services, our Housing Resource Center, and a permanent home for our Daystation.
To give you a sense of the impact and volume of services we’ll offer in this building, here are some numbers:
- In calendar years 2015-2016, our Housing Resource Center provided rapid rehousing for 223 households, and we helped to avert homelessness completely for 595 households. That’s worth repeating, 595 households we directly spared from losing their homes through our Housing Resource Center.
- In total, that’s 818 households (comprising 1,904 individuals) who didn’t fall into destitution and lose everything or were saved from impossibly long stays in shelter.
- These households included 785 children and 44 veterans.
Very soon, you will have a chance to tour through the Housing Resource Center and case management program later (just as soon as we’ve eaten every last cookie on that table).
Right here, where we are standing is the new Daystation. As most of you know, this program is the only daytime shelter for homeless adults in Chittenden County. Last year the Daystation helped 570 individuals who had nowhere else to turn.
This is the place where destitute veterans can come in from the streets, take a hot shower and rest. It’s where the elderly and disabled can get out from the harsh weather and have a cup of tea; or sit for as long as she likes without being asked to move.
This is the place where hundreds of indigent Vermonters will share a noontime meal over the next year. It’s the place where countless volunteers will help their most vulnerable neighbors by donating food, giving haircuts, teaching job readiness skills, serving a holiday meal or working in the garden.
In doing so, they will affirm what Steven Jay Gould once called the overwhelming weight of human decency.
Even more, this is the place where those who have given up or lost their way will begin to take the first steps back to the world, back to housing, family, recovery. I know this because I’ve watched it happen again and again for well over 20 years.
Finally, but perhaps most important, this will be the one place of refuge for the homeless where every detail, from the windows and the lighting, to the acoustics and the wooden finishes, even the water fountain and showers – everything has been designed to make them feel welcome and respected.
For those on the margins, huddled in doorways, struggling with demons we can’t even imagine, it is a rare thing indeed to feel welcome anywhere … to be greeted with a warm smile by someone glad to see them. I remember a woman telling me once that the hardest thing about being on the streets was it made her feel invisible, as if she’d become a ghost. “It’s like I disappeared,” she said.
Bertrand Russell once wrote that “Extreme hopes are born of extreme misery.”
I can’t think of a better way to convey how this project began.
Our highest hopes are contained in every detail of this new space … along with our abiding faith in the dignity and the infinite promise of every human life. This will be the place where those who come last everywhere else will come first.
Every building has a story and this one, in particular, is about affirmation. It’s about creating a place of welcome, a sanctuary from shame and scorn and indifference.
It’s about forgiveness and second chances and putting almost everything on the line for those who need it most.
It’s about individuals like Sister Lucille Bonvouloir, one of the founders of COTS, and the values of Mercy and courage that are her enduring legacy to us.
It’s about extraordinary generosity; the businesses, philanthropists, volunteers and staff who contributed a total of $3.2 million dollars to make this building possible: The Argosy Foundation, the Hoehl family, the Stillers, the Millers, and many more.
It’s about guardian angels like Lisa Steele who has been at our side since the very first Daystation opened its doors.
It’s about our community partners who work with us every day to break the fall into homelessness or to quickly re-house those who are in shelter. Partners like Mercy Connections, the Lund Family Center, Spectrum, Sarah Holbrook, HomeShare Vermont, CVOEO and the King Street Youth Center. It’s about Opportunities Credit Union, Cathedral Square and the Champlain Housing Trust.
This project could not have happened without people like Bob Duncan and Jeanne Morrissey who have always found a way to do the impossible for COTS and the people we serve. And it couldn’t have happened without Jonathan Farrell, Becky Holt and Denise Danyow on COTS staff who worked tirelessly to reach the milestone we are celebrating today. I am so grateful to each of you.
I also want to thank COTS board of directors for having faith in our vision but also asking the tough questions about funding and risk and outcomes (please raise you hands if you’re here).
I want to thank Shelley Richardson in particular, for leading our capital campaign and patiently teaching us so much.
I also want to thank Housing Vermont for standing by us during the absolute worst moments. …. Crumbling foundation walls, rotting sills, no end of unsuitable soils. (Talk about extreme misery!)
And I want to thank all of you for your encouragement and support.
My greatest hope is that this building will stand as an enduring testament to what is best in each of us… a profound affirmation of the work we do and the people we serve.
Against the harsh backdrop of what’s happening in Washington, during the difficult days ahead, let this place be a lasting reminder of who we are as Vermonters and as a community.