Home News and Features UPDATE: Officials Rally to Save Overflow Homeless Shelter

UPDATE: Officials Rally to Save Overflow Homeless Shelter

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Rev. Beth Ann Maier stands in the space at Christ Church that will be used as an overflow shelter for homeless Vermonters. Photo by Tom Brown

An overflow shelter for people without housing at Christ Church in Montpelier will open after all. 

An agreement to open the maximum 10-bed overnight shelter on Sunday, Nov. 22, nearly fell apart this week but state officials and the Good Samaritan Haven settled on a plan Thursday that will allow the facility to open on time.

“We’re good to go,” said Rick DeAngelis, executive director of Good Samaritan on Thursday.

The opening was in jeopardy on Wednesday, when the peer-support service Another Way withdrew its plan to provide daytime shelter for the overflow population from Christ Church. That commitment was a critical part of a four-way deal among the state Department of Children and Families, Good Sam, Another Way and Christ Church. DCF had required a daytime shelter option as a condition of funding the overflow shelter.

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Another Way, which has been closed since April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, intended to reopen but on Wednesday it decided the current spike in cases in Central Vermont precluded that from happening.

“We had hoped to open our drop-in center at 125 Barre Street in mid-November to address the needs of our community’s most vulnerable populations, but the reality of the pandemic has caused us to put on the brakes,” Another Way Executive Director Ken Russell said in a statement. “Specifically, we will no longer be working with Good Samaritan Haven to provide indoor daytime shelter for a

limited number of the homeless population.”

That might have ended the story, but DeAngelis, with an assist from state Rep. Mary Hooper, worked with Sarah Phillips, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity to find a way to open and provide an overnight option for those living outside. “Our focus will be to find other emergency housing options like a motel room for those that come to the shelter” DeAngelis said.  “Hopefully we can find a safe option for everyone and perhaps close the shelter later this winter.”  Good Sam’s street outreach staff reports that there are currently about 15 people living outside in the area.

Under its memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Good Sam, Christ Church would house a maximum of 10 guests in its basement space from 8 p.m to 8 a.m. beginning Nov. 22. If no agreement was reached Montpelier would be without an overflow shelter for the first time in four years. Bethany Church had sheltered 20 guests a night for the past three years but informed Good Samaritan in August that it would no longer be able to do so.  

Rev. Beth Ann Maier, regional deacon for Christ Church, said that while such shelters do not solve the issue of homelessness, it was within the Church’s ministry to help offer a temporary solution.

“It’s a human relationship that we’re involved in and the idea of these folks being outside, just a few yards from our door in the pocket park when it’s freezing, is dissonant with our faith,” said Maier, who also serves the Church of the Good Shepherd in Barre. Maier was referring to the area along the bike path behind the district heating plant where people congregate.

Most of the region’s homeless population is being housed in area motels paid for with state vouchers. The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to the creation of emergency funds that expand the eligibility and duration of the vouchers.

DeAngelis said that as of Sept. 8 there were 218 individuals and children housed in Washington County motels, about 20 people in shelters, and at least 50 living outside. As of Nov. 3, there were 47 households with children and 131 households without children using general assistance motel vouchers in the Barre District area, according to Sarah Phillips, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity for the Agency of Human Services. The district includes a few locations outside Washington County. Phillips said the state will pursue any emergency funds that become available through FEMA to continue the expanded eligibility programs, such as money for motel vouchers. 

“Many people who don’t have secure housing are getting motel vouchers,” DeAngelis said. “This is for those who for one reason or other can’t find a place in our other facilities.” He added that without Christ Church’s intervention there would have been no overflow shelter in Montpelier this winter.

“Even with the motels there is going to be a group of people with no other option,” DeAngelis said. “It’s the nature of the problem that we have to have some kind of backup.”

The space at Christ Church is designed for eight people with two emergency beds. The common room will be divided into individual 100-square-foot spaces divided by dark Plexiglas, Maier said. Good Samaritan staff will supervise the guests overnight and the Church will have no direct supervision, similar to the arrangement at Bethany.

Maier said the Church’s only request was that the agreement be as “cost neutral” as possible. In addition to heating costs, the Church will also need to install console-type air filters to help protect against the spread of the virus as well as fans to ventilate the space between occupancy.

Maier, who has been working with multi-denominational groups on the issue for years, said the issue of homelessness is only getting worse and that long-term investment is needed.

She said her group in 2015 set the goal of eradicating homelessness by 2020 but the numbers have only grown larger.

“The long-term solution is more housing,” she said. She believes the state and federal governments should make it simpler to address the problem on multiple fronts, making it easier for groups to buy and refit motels into permanent housing, allow large homes to be made into apartments, facilitate the development of unused property, and to be more active in helping landlords and tenants to better cooperate.

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