Bethany Church Declines 2020 Warming Shelter Request Due to COVID-19
If ever Montpelier needed a good Samaritan,* it is now.
The local homeless population is not getting smaller, but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused shelter providers to reduce or eliminate beds because of social-distancing requirements. Unless circumstances change, come winter this is a problem.
An organization dealing with sheltering those experiencing homelessness lost use of the Bethany Church as a warming shelter this winter. That space had been one of four shelters used to protect roughly 75 local people as coordinated by the Barre-based Good Samaritan Haven program.
In March, the pandemic forced the Good Samaritan shelter to abruptly close its doors and re-house guests in the Econo Lodge in Montpelier — and some at the Hilltop Inn in Berlin — in order to adhere to new social distancing requirements, said Rick DeAngelis, diretcor of Good Samaritan Haven since last December. All of the Barre residents had to leave, but some of them have started moving back in this June. The rest are still staying at the Econo Lodge.But motel vouchers are ending soon.
“As of September 1, we will no longer be at the Econo Lodge,” DeAngelis told The Bridge July 31. “Central Vermont has the second largest homeless population [in Vermont].” Good Samaritan coordinates finding housing/shelter, food, clothing, and other services for people during their stay at the motels, and expects to do so “at least through the end of the year.”
But, after that? “What is going to happen to the guy or gal this December first, and there is no where to go? And there is no shelter? That is the real danger and question mark for December,” DeAngelis said.
He described working with several state agencies, including the Department for Children and Families, the Vermont State Housing Authority, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to find a solution. DeAngelis described how he thought in June he was on the brink of solving the coming winter crisis. But within a few weeks, several of his solutions either stalled or fell through.
One plan was to put federal funding of around $2 million into an unoccupied local college dorm, but those talks were paused over fears the proposal will be appealed, and the funds, which must be spent by year’s end, would be lost. “In June, we were on a fast track. We were a day away from sending out a press release, [but] our funder said, ‘I don’t think you are going to get funding.’ It broke my heart.”
The coronavirus crisis has changed the feasibility of offering shelter in an environment where people are supposed to be six feet apart from one another. “We’ve looked at a lot of options,” DeAngelis said.
Some of the options included re-establishing winter programs from the previous year, but at least one organization has pulled out. For the past three years, the Bethany Church in Montpelier had allowed 20 people suffering winter homelessness to sleep on cots in its basement. People got a hot meal, a shower, and other necessities. But church leadership informed DeAngelis that is not happening in 2020.
“While we understand the great need for a warming shelter to be in place for the upcoming winter, the basement of Bethany cannot be that place,” wrote Liz Sykas, board of directors chair and Bethany Church President, in a letter to DeAngelis dated July 22. “We believe it would be unsafe for the guests, and additionally would impede our other missions/services in the community,” Sykas wrote.
DeAngelis did get $120,000 to fix up the existing shelter at 104 Seminary Street in Barre. COVID-19 requirements caused the shelter to reduce capacity from over 30 to just 15 guests.
“Normally, we’ve offered 75 beds a night in four different locations in Barre and Montpelier,” DeAngelis said. This year, we are only going to be able to offer 25 beds. The hope is that everyone who doesn’t get a shelter bed is going to get a motel room. I worry there will be no motel beds, or no shelter beds, and I am worried they will be disqualified.”
The Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre offers 14 beds for those experiencing homelessness. Doors are open from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. DeAngelis said he has also approached St. Augustine’s church in Montpelier, but the matter has not been resolved. A staffer at St. Augustine’s told The Bridge the topic is scheduled to be discussed at an upcoming meeting, but she did not know when that meeting will be held.
For now, however, DeAngelis and staff are slowly moving people from the Econo Lodge back to the shelter in Barre.
DeAngelis said he is looking for other solutions. “We are actively looking at real estate that will better address the needs of Washington County because what we have now is totally inadequate. Everybody recognizes that, too.”
The ideal site would be in the middle of Barre or Montpelier, DeAngelis said. “The tragedy of this is most of the sites are in the floodplain. Downtown Barre is in the floodplain. We’re looking at a few sites on the Barre-Montpelier Road, and a few in Barre.”
Luciana DiRuocco, spokesperson for the Department for Children and Families, said of the situation, “You are correct that the current pandemic has created a lot of change in how emergency housing is run, because we wanted people to have the option for safe housing so as not to spread the virus. We have used our authority under Act 91 to modify our rules to meet the needs of the current health crisis. We understand that housing is a basic human need and public health issue.”
When asked what DCF is doing to help the situation, DiRuocco said her organization is expanding the Vermont Rental Subsidy program and launching a rapid resolution initiative. “Almost 400 vouchers will be available in early August for lease up as early as September for households experiencing homelessness; every homeless family with children will receive a one-year rental assistance subsidy with services,” she emailed The Bridge. In addition, they are working with other agencies to invest in new housing and emergency shelters.
If someone finds themself to be homeless, DiRuocco said to call Vermont 2-1-1, or during business hours, go to their local Economic Services Division office. The office for the Barre-Montpelier area is in the McFarland Office Building on 5 Perry Street in Barre.
Cameron Niedermayer, Montpelier’s assistant city manager, acknowledged the situation. “It is important for folks to know what is going on. It isn’t a problem with no solution. It is a problem we all have to look at as a community,” Niedermayer said.
*A good Samaritan is a character portrayed in the Bible, Luke, 10:30
The parable of the Good Samaritan is from the Gospel According to St. Luke in the New Testament. In that parable, a lawyer confronts Jesus and asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus says, in addition to other requirements, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” So the lawyer asks who is his neighbor?
Jesus tells him about a man who was traveling and ran into a pack of thieves. The thieves took everything he had, beat him, and left him for dead by the side of the road. A priest came upon man and kept walking. Then a Levite passed by as well. Finally, a Samaritan came upon him, helped clean and bind his wounds, and brought him to an inn to take care of him for the night.
— Source: King James version of The Bible, Project Gutenberg