Persephone Naylor jumped at the chance to work at the low-barrier homeless shelter in Burlington when it opened last November. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, a rapid response was needed to relocate the shelter’s guests and staff to a place where they could practice safe social distancing during the crisis. Now, the shelter's services are set up at the North Beach Campground where guests live in campers.
“Moving from the shelter to the campsite in four days was a challenge, but everybody worked hard to make it happen,” says the UVM Social Work senior from New Paltz, New York.
“It affirmed for me what a strong and resilient community this is. Given this new structure, my job and how I interact with guests are very different now. Where meals in the shelter were very much a time for being together and socializing, we now distribute single-serve meals to each guest in their trailer. We are required to wear protective gear and keep proper distancing from guests, which can feel alienating at times.”
Naylor began sharing meals with people experiencing homelessness downtown as a first-year student at UVM. “I heard their stories and formed meaningful relationships with the community. But the biggest challenge was having to walk away, unable to connect them to resources or provide support in any kind of formal way.”
Fast forward to her senior year, Naylor got her field placement as an intern in the housing retention department at the Burlington Housing Authority.
“I learned a lot about community programs and resources for people who are marginally housed or homeless,” she says. “Then, the low-barrier shelter opened, and my field instructor suggested that I apply." For Naylor, it was an opportunity to work with the homeless population in a way that was sustainable and long-term.
“Working at the shelter has been an incredible experience. Being able to bear witness to the life experience of so many incredible people, I can’t describe what that’s like. You feel everything together. If one person hurts, we hurt together. If one person laughs, we laugh together. In the shelter, smiles are contagious. Even though we’ve moved out of our space, I will never forget the image of 6:00 pm dinner in the shelter. The common space is alive with conversation and togetherness; volunteers from the community are there, providing meals made with love. I’ll never forget that that felt like.”
In some ways, Naylor is learning to stay the same person, true to her values. “I have always held the belief that people have the best intentions, and this gives me an innate trust in everybody I meet. Many peers have advised me to change my outlook, calling it naïve. But as I later found out, Brene Brown encourages people to believe that everybody is doing their best, and explains that such a belief is crucial to maintaining compassion and empathy.”
In that regard, she was not surprised that Burlington mobilized the way it did in response to the pandemic.
“Our community has always struck me as exceptional. What baffles me is how some other cities across the nation have chosen to respond." She notes that one city painted social distancing lines on a parking lot, and homeless people were essentially assigned parking spots, with no tents or shelter provided.
Naylor is proud to be part of the efforts in Burlington to protect the homeless, such as expanding the motel voucher program, transforming Safe Harbor into a quarantine site for homeless people with symptoms, moving the low-barrier guests into trailers, and plans to have a recovery center for positive COVID-19 cases, as explained in a recent Burlington Free Press article.
She emphasizes the ongoing need for meal providers, food donations, and water donations. Volunteers and donors can sign up through the BTV Shelter (ANEW Place) website, and questions about how to help should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the crisis, she continues to find strength and inspiration through connections with the UVM community.
“The Social Work Department is inherently community-oriented. It is no surprise that my cohort has been so intentional about supporting each other and remaining connected during this time in whatever ways we can. Our professors have been so kind and flexible, conducting check-ins and encouraging seniors to take care of themselves. I am so grateful to be in the Social Work Program, especially in a time like this.”
After graduation, Naylor plans to enroll in a dual degree program to pursue an MSW (Master of Social Work) and a JD (law degree). Her dream is to become a state legislator in her home state of New York.
Note: The student featured in this story is participating in work/volunteerism that is separate from her academic studies at UVM.