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City Creates Policy Addressing Homeless Encampments on Public Property

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The City of Montpelier, Vermont is facing a homelessness situation following the COVID 19 lockdown. Pictured is a view of Montpelier from Cliff Street just below Hubbard Park. Photo by Carla Occaso.

Where do you go when you have nowhere to go? Last week nearly 50 people were turned out of area motels where they stayed on an emergency basis during the COVID-19 lockdown that began in spring of 2020, according to a member involved with helping the City of Montpelier tackle the topic. Because the motel program is being phased out, those without shelter must do the best they can with available resources — including sleeping outdoors.

Even before COVID-19, a few people without a place to live in Montpelier would sleep outdoors in the summer, and sometimes they would set up camp in parks or under bridges. To address this situation, the city moved forward on a proposed draft policy to instruct the city staff on how to deal with such encampments.

The draft proposal has the backing of Montpelier’s Police Chief Brian Peete as well as Rick DeAngelis, executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven and a leading force in the movement to reduce the number of unsheltered individuals.

According to Chief Peete, “Montpelier has been working with the state and partner and stakeholder organizations to try to find both immediate and long-term solutions to a very complex and unfortunate problem that has affected so many people for so long. Our focus is to find ways to provide help and services to those who need them and to avoid criminalizing people for issues they have no control over.” Peete went on to describe the move as a response to having limited resources to immediately provide housing for people without a roof over their head. 

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Peete also expressed his appreciation for the people on the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force, who, along with DeAngelis and others, are working to find a compassionate solution. “We can only do the best we can with what we have. I know city leadership, our police department, city staff, and especially the council are intensely looking for ways to find more permanent solutions to help people who have no place to stay.”

Similarly, DeAngelis said he is encouraged by the city’s stance. “It indicates that city leadership is thinking about the need and the challenge it [homelessness] presents. This is supported by my experience interacting with Montpelier’s public safety officials. My overarching take on the substance of the policy is that it is an effort to balance public safety and human service concerns,” DeAngelis told The Bridge.

DeAngelis said 46 people left area motels last week, and many had no specific resettlement plans. The number of people camping in Montpelier’s public lands could double or triple over the summer and fall. The good thing about the policy is that it helps by not punishing people who are just doing what they need to do trying to stay alive. It also incorporates an “intention to connect public safety [the police and their involvement] with housing and service providers,” DeAngelis states. However, he is not enthusiastic about allowing “sanctioned” encampments as a solution, saying, “ I think it would create a different set of problems.” 

Additionally, DeAngelis said he believes street outreach and related efforts need to be expanded and better integrated with public safety. 

The forest and forest floor of Hubbard Park, one of the City of Montpelier’s many public lands as seen on July 9, 2021. Photo by Carla Occaso.

Created by Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer, staff representative involved in Montpelier’s Homelessness Task Force, the draft policy calls on city staff members to “decriminalize and legitimize” camping and sleeping in city-owned property. However, people are not allowed to sleep in some areas deemed “sensitive,” such as near schools, hiking trails or day care centers.

Echoing the immediate need to help people being put out of the motel program, the draft policy states, “We anticipate the increase of folks on the street without shelter, who will need immediate relief and support.” A major part of the policy also includes having city staff members who encounter such encampments — including “tents, huts, trailers, or vehicles” — to provide information about services for those in need. The overall goal is to help transition people in dire circumstances into a stable living environment, the policy states.

Niedermayer told The Bridge by email the policy was created specifically to help those who have been released into the community because the Hotel/Motel program ended. “This policy aims to address the legal responsibilities of jurisdictions to allow emergency camping on public land, as established in the Martin v. Boise case,” which states that it is not illegal to sleep on public lands if there is nowhere else to go. Niedermayer agreed this policy is not a solution to homelessness, but rather a guideline for city staff on how to interact with those who are camping on an emergency basis. She also noted the city cannot legally prohibit this activity unless they provide shelter somewhere else. 

She said the city has received feedback from some people who do not want to allow camping on public land, but the city cannot prohibit it under current circumstances. Niedermayer also reiterated this policy is not a solution, it is a set of emergency guidelines, and the combined strength of state agencies, service providers, and the community will be needed to find a solution.

An excerpt from the draft policy:

“The City of Montpelier and its staff will take a general non-involvement approach to any found camping sites, with the particular lens of not criminalizing people creating shelter due to a lack of housing. Staff will intervene and ask encampments to relocate if they are on privately owned 

land, in the identified high-sensitivity areas, or if specific health and safety criteria, as outlined in this policy, are encountered. Staff will offer to connect folks camping to any available overnight shelters (a public or private shelter, with an available overnight space, for an individual experiencing homelessness, at no charge). 

Staff will report any seen encampments to the City Manager’s Office, the Police Department, and the city-supported Peer Support Outreach worker through Good Samaritan — to ensure folks who are camping will be contacted and hopefully connected to supportive services.”