BURLINGTON — Will Suchoski reached into his backpack, pulled out a stack of magazines and arranged them on the table.
“I do a lot of reading,” the 52-year-old said, discussing how he spends his time in his new living space at the Elmwood emergency shelter in Burlington. “A lot of dreaming, a lot of reading.”
During an interview in the shelter’s community building, Suchoski pulled one magazine to the top of the stack, a luxury yacht catalog. “Can you imagine winning one of these?” Suchoski said with a wide smile. “But this is probably more my budget,” he continued, pointing to a Tiny Homes magazine. He also had one about timber cabins.
Suchoski likes to dream big. He spent years working in trades like carpentry, and he hopes to use those skills to build his own home one day.
In February, Suchoski moved into a “pod” in Burlington’s newly opened emergency shelter community. Burlington was able to use Covid-19 relief funds to open the site in early February following months of construction-related delays. The city led the project and selected Champlain Housing Trust to manage the site. The structure measures a compact 64 square feet, but it’s heated, secure and, for now, all his own.
After living outdoors, mostly sleeping in his car, he was the first person to move into his pod. Soon after, he went to work personalizing it. He has a simple camp chair, a bureau, books and magazines. He’s decorated with a huge Grateful Dead banner and LED rope light. He’s cut out images from magazines and calendars for a collage on his wall featuring motorcycles and outlaws.
Champlain Housing Trust, which manages the site, did not allow VTDigger inside the pods and some other guest areas of the Elmwood site, due to a policy limiting the public’s access. Suchoski shared photos of his space with a reporter and described it in interviews.
In addition to the physical space, Elmwood provides Suchoski resources such as classes and access to social workers, who help provide a support structure for things such as a job search, strategies to find permanent housing and getting new identification cards. Some residents also receive new cellphones.
He said he appreciates the overlooked benefits of having clean clothes and a shower to boost self esteem. Recently, he even pitched an idea to site staff about haircuts. They agreed. Soon, someone will cut hair once a month in the community building.
Since moving in, Suchoski said he has felt relief. He no longer worries about where he’s going to sleep and can instead focus more on addressing other things like his substance use disorder. Before arriving here, he was either staying in his car or crashing with other people who, he said, often wanted either drugs or money in exchange. All of the ways the shelter has changed his life mean it’s easier to make better decisions, something he admits to struggling with in recent years.
Suchoski grew up in Burlington. At an early age, he said he was “declared unmanageable” and placed in St. Joseph’s Orphanage on North Avenue. He admitted to having a “rebellious” streak by the time he started his first year at Rice Memorial High School: smoking, fighting and finding himself in the principal’s office a lot. He eventually graduated and worked in various trades such as carpentry, painting and plumbing. He married young and had two kids. While he said he didn’t always get along with his wife, they stayed together for 28 years.
But he acknowledged having a tough time always doing the right thing.
“There's been a few good people throughout the years that have kind of directed me towards morals and the code of life that I live,” Suchoski said. “I've always lived the way I wanted to, and I’m not always proud of it, but I've never hurt nobody. I've never stolen from a working man. I've never taken food off the table of a family,” Suchoski paused, before adding, “addictions make you do funny things.”
His substance use disorder began with cocaine, but years later he became dependent on the powerful opioid Oxycontin. When that became hard to find, he, like many others, turned to heroin. Suchoski said his wife, who also had a substance use disorder, died from an overdose about two and a half years ago.
Suchoski said he’s also been in trouble with the law.
“I’ve been a criminal all my life,” he said. “Not a violent criminal, but a petty criminal, if you will.” He mentioned a history of drug-related offenses, retail theft and a recent charge related to driving while intoxicated.
But he ended up getting a chance to rebound in the most recent DUI case. Around a year ago he was referred to treatment court. His case was handled by Lacey-Ann Smith, community support supervisor for the Burlington Police Department.
In an interview, Smith said treatment court is used for individuals facing crimes related to substance use or mental health with sentences between one and three years. She called it a “hidden gem” of the court system and said she has seen people turn around their lives in the program.
“I've watched people come in homeless, riddled with addiction — decades’ worth of addiction — being in the program for almost two years and re-housed, sober, have their kids, have jobs, cars … and they still are,” Smith said.
While Smith said the program offers people a chance to rebound, they have to show that they want to change and that they can progress toward their goals.
When Suchoski came in over a year ago following the DUI charge, Smith said he started off doing well. Following a guilty plea and sentence, he was initially sober but eventually suffered a setback and struggled to recover. He lost his housing at an apartment in downtown Burlington “and it just kind of snowballed,” Smith said.
While Smith said Suchoski’s time in treatment court has not been perfect — he’s had to spend a night or two in jail after infractions like driving without a license — she said he has recently shown more appreciation for the support he receives.
Before the Elmwood shelter opened, Champlain Housing Trust was seeking referrals for guests, and Smith helped Suchoski to apply. He was approved.
“Since getting into a pod, I mean, I can definitely notice the difference in his overall presentation and attitude,” Smith said.
Suchoski said he mostly likes to keep to himself in the shelter community. The site is at capacity now at 35 guests, according to Chris Donnelly, Champlain Housing Trust’s director of community relations.
“I just try to keep my distance, and I’m just working on myself,” Suchoski said.
He was eager to start a new job at Dynapower in South Burlington, which began this week. He takes the bus to work but thinks he might need to get a bike as well. Once he starts working, he plans to save his money for a new — and permanent — place to live.
“I'm fairly intelligent. I'm very mechanically inclined. It's just a matter of having all the tools that I need to put my life back together,” Suchoski said. “This place is definitely an asset. It's a good place for people, as they choose, to make the right decisions.”
Other than the big dreams of log cabins and luxury yachts, Suchoski more practically hopes to start planning his next move once he has some money coming in from the job.
“I’m thankful for this place,” Suchoski said. “But I do not want to be back here next year.”