Winter and early spring are usually quiet times of year at the Hilltop Inn, located across Route 62 from the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin. “In the summer, springtime, foliage season, college graduation—it’s quicker turnover, people here for a night or two,” said a manager at the motel, who asked that her name not be used. In the cold part of the year, the Hilltop keeps revenues flowing by opening up its rooms to people in economic distress who have sought help by calling 2-1-1.
With unemployment soaring, and a concerted effort in Vermont to get homeless people into rooms of their own, the two-story brick motel is no longer quiet. “We have 80 rooms,” the manager said, “and 60 to 65 of them are housing people from the shelter or (state) Economic Services.”
The shelter she referred to is Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, which since mid-March—the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Vermont—has provided motel rooms to the homeless who had been staying in the four shelters the organization operates in Barre and Montpelier. The motel rooms give people a place to comply with Gov. Phil Scott’s stay-at-home order and social distancing guidelines and 24-hour access to a sink for frequent hand washing. Good Samaritan volunteers deliver three meals a day. The Economic Services Division of the Department for Children and Families (DCF) administers benefits to help people meet their basic needs.
The sudden influx of people with DCF benefits or under the care of the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre has led to culture clashes and even calls to law enforcement. In response, the state contracted with Good Samaritan to post staff at the Hilltop 24 hours a day.
Some of the issues seem similar to the ones that local residents of popular vacation destinations have with tourists. “We went from not always having a lot of people here to always having a lot of people here,” said long-term guest Katelyn Graves. “It’s kind of like being in your own place and then having your in-laws move in. It’s not quiet anymore.” Graves said she serves as a care provider for her mother, an amputee. The two of them moved into the Hilltop in November, she said, when the handicapped accessible apartment they expected to rent fell through. “Being as how she’s in a wheelchair, it’s hard to find accessible housing now,” Graves explained.
“People are hooting and hollering, being outside making noise when they shouldn’t be,” Graves elaborated.
Sydney Laflower was among the recent arrivals. “It’s terrible here,” he said. “I just want to go home. I’m under a restraining order for no reason at all.” Barred from going home, he said he called 2-1-1 and was given aid to move into the Hilltop on March 29. “There are a lot of bad people here,” Laflower said. “They’re trying to sell everybody their drugs, keeping them awake all night.”
Good Samaritan’s 24-hour staffing started Sunday, April 5. Early one weekday afternoon, staffer Bonnie Cummings was standing next to a box of sandwiches and desserts, calling one motel room after another. Cummings was alerting the guests that the takeout lunch was ready for them. She said Good Samaritan distributed breakfasts, lunches, and dinners to 70 people at the motel.
Cummings listed some of the issues she and other staff were grappling with. “The smoking in the rooms? It’s really hard to police that. What are you going to do—kick them out? And 2-1-1 is going to send them right back in again, and you have this COVID-19 going on, so people know they can kind of get away with stuff. And excessive drinking—we don’t allow that at Good Sam, so our Good Sam clients, you can nip it in the bud.”
She also said that people were bringing in unauthorized guests and having parties. “We had a situation where the room was open and a guy was passed out on the floor. I haven’t seen any fights yet, but I think others have.”
The manager described ways the motel was going to start cracking down on the new guests. “Everyone up here that’s not long term, they’re going to be signing an agreement,” she said. “It should have been done from the get-go, but this was all thrown at us so fast. They will be asked to leave the property if they are caught smoking or doing drugs.”
She said Berlin Police and the Washington County Sheriff’s Department have also been doing drive-throughs in the parking lot, and there is a sheriff’s car in the parking lot through the night during the week and 24 hours a day on weekends. (The state has contracted with the sheriff’s department to provide that ongoing presence, according to Sean Brown at DCF.)
Asked about staff members who had recently left, the manager said, “We haven’t had a huge turnover. One left two-and-a-half weeks ago, and another took a leave because of other health issues.”
A week after the initial conversation, the manager said the situation had changed in small ways only. “We’re fighting an uphill battle. A few of the guests we had issues with, we had them leave, and they’re being housed either out of this county or at another hotel.” The sheriff’s department is still positioning a car in the parking lot every night, and all day on weekends.
Rick DeAngelis, director of the Good Samaritan Haven, said it’s been frustrating for him that the shelter lacks the authority to remove people who consistently break the rules. “You don’t start off with threatening to throw people out, but at some point, you have to have a bottom line. We’ve had that at the EconoLodge.” Good Samaritan has a contract with the state to house people formerly staying in area homeless shelters in the EconoLodge in Montpelier, which the state has leased for that purpose.
DeAngelis said that Good Samaritan has the option of evicting someone at the EconoLodge, but he doesn’t have that power over people coming to the Hilltop with support from DCF.
Asked about what would happen to a homeless person thrown out for violating the rules, DeAngelis said, “At the EconoLodge, if we can’t find them accommodations somewhere else, we say, ‘You’ve defaulted; here’s a sleeping bag; we’ll review your case in three days, if you wish.’ That probably sounds harsh, but we’re trying to protect the safety of a large group of people.”
While Good Samaritan doesn’t have the authority to evict people from the Hilltop, the motel management does, according to DCF’s Brown. “We’ve worked with motels around the state where they’ve had individuals who’ve not followed the motel rules, and they’ve asked them to leave, and then we’ve moved them to another location.” Normally, Brown said, someone evicted from a motel would be ineligible to be housed elsewhere under the same program for a period of time. “Given our need to keep people with social distancing and ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe,’ we’ve waived that policy.”
Asked about what happens after someone breaking motel rules is simply moved to a different place, Brown said, “We’re working through those scenarios right now. Limiting the ability of this virus to spread is our ultimate goal here, and we want to support people who are having challenges with their behavior, but ultimately we want to serve the greater good and protect people from the virus. It continues to evolve.”
If people are breaking the law in motels, what about housing them in jails? Brown said, “We’re not a criminal justice organization; we’re the Agency of Human Services. But we understand that if there’s criminal conduct, that needs to be addressed by law enforcement, and we support their involvement.”
Like so many people grappling with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, with situations previous rules and policies were not written for, the Agency of Human Services and their partners are learning as they go. Brown said, “We value our conversations with Rick [DeAngelis] and his crew, with Washington County Mental Health, with local law enforcement. I think you’ll see further development of how we approach these tougher cases.”