“How can we help?” Reverend Jan Hutslar and the folks at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley in Norwich were able to answer this question by hosting the retrofitted RV that Simon Dennis, director of the Center for Transformation Practice (CTP) in Hartford, and his team put together to house two previously un-housed persons.
The RV has been outfitted into two apartments that can each house a person comfortably with the necessary amenities for most activities of daily life. The church first became involved in the project after Dennis sent a letter to the congregation gauging their interest in hosting the RV home. “Dennis had been a guest speaker around issues the un-housed face in our community at the church early this past fall. It really sparked a lot of conversations. People spoke with Dennis following the service and asked, ‘How can we be involved? How can we help?’” Rev. Hutslar says.
After Dennis presented the project to the board, the response was immediately positive. “I was really impressed,” Rev. Hutslar says, “The board said there’s no question if we can be of help here, we want to do it. It’s what our values tell us.” Rev. Hutslar met with Dennis and the prospective tenants. “We talked and got to know each other,” Rev. Hutslar says, and the tenants moved onto the property.
The congregation welcomed the tenants, and they became part of the church community. Several members of the congregation connected with the tenants in particular – a member who works as the church groundskeeper knitted hats for the tenants. The church grounds feature a big apple tree whose apples often go to the Haven food shelves and that the congregation may use as they wish; Rev. Hutslar recalls one of the tenants, who grew up on a farm, utilizing some of those apples to make applesauce over their small Coleman stove.
Originally from Indiana, Rev. Hutlsar first came to the Upper Valley four years ago after graduating from her seminary program in California. She interviewed with four different churches in New England but fell in love with the church here in Norwich. “Luckily they wanted me, too,” she laughs, “I love it and I love them. They’re pretty wonderful. It’s really rewarding and it’s an honor. I’m really grateful.”
The RV and its tenants were allowed to stay at the church in Norwich for 30 days, according to town regulations. Rev. Hutslar noted it has been difficult for CPT to find places to park the RVs. “Churches and communities want to help, but town regulations do get in the way of that.” She hopes that this story will draw more attention to the issues around housing people in the Upper Valley and that the town ordinances, such as the 30-day limit, that exist can be addressed “so we can keep our neighbors a little safer and a little more protected from the elements.” This extremely cold weather, Rev. Hutslar notes, makes it even more imperative to help community members who don’t have a warm place to live.
The RV and its tenants moved to the First Congregational Church in Lebanon following their stay in Norwich. After their time allowed in Lebanon ended as well, the RV has found another new home for the time being. “We all said goodbye and hugged,” Rev. Hustlar says, “The next time I went into church, it felt so lonely. They were our neighbors for a month. It was a little sad; I missed them.”
Even with the tenants no longer living at the church, the positive impact of their stay continues. Rev. Hutslar still checks in with tenants regularly and members of the congregation remain connected to them. A group of congregation members help the tenants out with rides in and out of town for errands and job interviews. One member was with a tenant when she received the job offer which she has since accepted. “It’s nice to see how we can help each other out,” Rev. Hutslar says. The congregation has also since collected warm blanks, clothing, and rugs to help keep the units warm this winter. “I know people like to help,” Rev. Hutslar says, “It’s a big problem and if we can help one or two people, it makes a difference.”