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Early Shelter Opening Sparks Debate

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Bethany Church steeple. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

City officials shook the couch cush- ions in every department to find $10,000 to pay for the early opening of an overnight warming shelter at Bethany Church, but finding the staff to run it is proving to be a bit more tricky.

The City Council approved funding for an emergency request by the recently con- vened Homelessness Task Force to open the 20-bed homeless shelter a month earlier than its usual November 15 date. Good Samaritan Haven, which operates three winter shelters in the Twin Cities, earlier agreed to try to open the Montpelier fa- cility by October 15 but is now hoping aiming for November 1 as it seeks to hire enough people to staff the center.

The well-meaning effort by the task force to bring people inside sooner as tempera- tures drop, while supported by the Coun- cil, has raised questions about how the city deals with emergency requests for non- budgeted money.

A testy exchange during the Council’s October 9 meeting also led to the resigna- tion of one task force member who has been a vocal critic of Good Samaritan and has demanded more oversight of the non- profit’s budget.

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Mayor Anne Watson said the process caused concern about setting a precedent for last-minute requests for non-budgeted money and would like to see the Coun- cil establish clear guidelines for handling emergency funding situations.

“There are lots of organizations that address human needs in our community that could also be considered at crisis lev- els, and they’re not in our chamber asking for money,” she said. “I don’t want this kind of expenditure to become normal, so we need to define how we understand extenuating circumstances.”

She said steps should be taken to either budget the money for an early open- ing next year or to see whether the state would extend the range of its funding for the shelters.

The Bethany warming shelter was scheduled to be open from 8:30 pm to 8:30 am from November 15 to April 15 because that is the term of state fund- ing awarded to Good Samaritan. Any effort to open the shelter earlier requires additional funding at $340 per night, according to figures provided by Good Samaritan.

To accommodate the October 15 tar- get, City Manager Bill Fraser asked each department to tighten its belt, propor- tionately, to free up the $10,000 needed to operate the center for a month. Since the shelter will likely be open for half of that time, only a portion of the $10,000 will be needed.

Fraser said suggestions that the city take over supervision of the overnight warming shelter were unrealistic.

“We don’t have the expertise that Good Sam has,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense for the city to operate it. The city provides funding to a variety of non- profits through the ballot, but we don’t provide the services, other than the Senior Center.”

He also said the city would not intervene in negotiations between Good Sa- maritan and the church on an operating agreement.

Task Force Member Quits

Debate over approval of the applica- tion for emergency funding sparked a heated exchange between Homelessness Task Force member Stephen Whitaker and District 3 City Councilor Ashley

Hill. Whitaker was strongly voicing his concerns about Good Samaritan’s fund- ing transparency and took the organiza- tion to task about privacy over clauses in its operating agreement with Bethany Church that gives Good Samaritan staff the authority to search the possessions of shelter guests, among other things. Hill interrupted Whitaker to object to the tone of his remarks, which led to a heated exchange of words. Hill later apologized publicly.

Whitaker resigned from the task force the next day, citing a lack of confidence in the task force’s ability “to move a poorly selected agglomeration of mem- bers toward a homelessness remediation plan and strategy” and also doubted the Council’s and Good Samaritan’s ability to implement it.

“Shelter guests should certainly not be required to forfeit constitutional rights, i.e., First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, to avail themselves of the barely habitable accommodations of a cot on an open floor!” Whitaker wrote in an email.

“Dignity and respect are always a pri- ority for us,” said Rob Farrell, execu- tive director of Good Samaritan Haven. “Our first responsibility is the safety of the guests and the staff.” Farrell added that such searches are performed “very seldom” and that guests have been “very cooperative.”

Travis Hill, a formerly homeless man and member of the task force, told coun- cilors that his experience with service providers had been positive.

Farrell said he would ideally like to cre- ate a pool of four to six people available to work at the shelter with two needed to cover a given night. People who staff the shelter are paid $17 an hour, he said.

Tom Brown is contributing editor of The Bridge. ..... You can contact him at tom@montpelierbridge.com