A man’s death outdoors in cold temperatures is spotlighting the challenges facing Vermont’s homeless population in the winter.
Police in Middlebury said 45-year-old Suad Teocanin was found dead on the village green Saturday. He was not far from the shelter where he was staying, and had been drinking before he died, which investigators said appeared to play a significant role in the death.
Middlebury police said the death did not appear suspicious.
The restaurant where Teocanin worked, Two Brothers Tavern, said he had a big heart and brought joy to many. The eatery is working on arranging a celebration of Teocanin’s life, according to its Facebook page.
“It’s always a tragedy when someone freezes to death outside like that,” said Mark Redmond of Spectrum Youth & Family Services, who did not know Teocanin but heard of the case through Vermont media reports. “Especially if they were homeless and on their way to a shelter.”
Spectrum is one of several Burlington-area human services providers that said Wednesday demand for shelter space has exceeded capacity this winter. Spectrum’s overnight shelter at the St. Joseph Co-Cathedral is open to youth ages 18-26 and was funded largely by private foundations and donors.
“I have no doubt that we are running at about six extra beds regularly, at least in part due to the cold,” said Erin Ahern, the homeless healthcare director for the Community Health Centers of Burlington, which also operates a winter shelter. “And there’s knocking at the door, and people saying ‘I tried to stay out and it’s too cold.’”
This season has already seen temperatures in Burlington plunge below zero 13 days, including that particularly brutal seven-day subzero stretch.
“It sucks, man,” said Reuben Bowen, who is homeless in Burlington. “I’ve feared for my life on these frigid nights. I don’t want to see nobody die out here.”
Things are getting better, Jan Demers, the executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
Demers said recent surveys have shown sharp drops in chronic homelessness, family homelessness, and in numbers of homeless people with severe mental illnesses or substance use disorders.
Advocates said those declines have been achieved through new shelters and housing options, some of which are linked to health care support.
Despite the progress so far, those on the front lines of combatting homelessness and housing insecurity say there’s still a long way to go.