Home News and Features City News Homelessness Task Force Advances Encampment Policy

Homelessness Task Force Advances Encampment Policy

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Montpelier resident Stephen Whitaker, foreground, makes a point to the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force appearing in a Zoom meeting on a laptop in City Hall City Council Chambers July 14. Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer, left, presides. Photo by Carla Occaso

Includes Map of Approved Camping Spots on City Land

A Montpelier committee has advanced a plan to deal with an uptick of homeless encampments on city-owned property, including a map with approved camping areas. The move comes in response to the recent end of the statewide emergency hotel/motel program for unhoused individuals. With the COVID-related program no longer in force, new problems have surfaced for city staff, residents, and those without a roof over their heads.

Montpelier’s Homelessness Task Force voted unanimously July 14 to bring the draft policy to the Montpelier City Council. The policy was written by city staff primarily to guide city employees — including the police department — on how to deal with an increase in camping on city property due to the end of the hotel/motel program, which sheltered people during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

The primary principle is for staff to adopt a “hands off”, and even supportive approach, except if people are in unauthorized areas. But even in that instance, staff is guided to relocate, but not criminalize the behavior.

Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer provided a new map highlighting camping areas available for people with no other shelter. These areas include North Branch Park, the Old City Dump, Hubbard Park, Green Mount Cemetery property (except for the on burial stones/mounds, path, and drive), and the Dog River Recreation area. City ordinances regarding overnight camping in parks do not apply in emergency situations, Niedermayer told The Bridge after the meeting. Off limits are all other areas, especially city-owned land near schools and day care centers, and locations within the city’s floodplain.

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The task force’s vote followed a 90-minute discussion during which task force members and a few members of the public took turns commenting on the issues.

For one, how does city staff deal with people camping on state-owned land in town?

Task force member Zack Hughes questioned who would deal with people choosing to camp on the State House lawn? That property isn’t specifically off limits in the policy.

“We don’t have state framework,” noted Stephen Whitaker, a resident who said he was a founder of the task force but who has since dropped out. “The state framework is, ‘some time we will have houses for everybody…in the meantime we are kicking them out of hotels’.” Whitaker strongly voiced his opposition to the policy and its author, Niedermayer. He asserted none of the policy had any validity until the matters of providing hygiene facilities were established. He mentioned a situation in the Guertin Pocket Park where he said there were problems with wet clothing, urine, and feces. He further opined that the plan invades people’s privacy by asking staff to keep track of where encampments are established.

Niedermayer said the policy was not meant to solve homelessness, rather it was to guide city staff on how to deal with existing encampments and direct houseless campers to services. The intention, she said, is to decriminalize emergency camping in alignment with a court case, which set a precedent that municipalities have no right to prohibit camping on public lands if the city cannot provide an alternate shelter.

Homelessness Task Force Chair Ken Russell battled to keep discussion moving forward amidst what he characterized as “heartfelt” and “energetic” input from Whitaker and another member of the public, Morgan Brown. Elizabeth Parker also weighed in, asking the task force to deal with those needing to camp in town with as much care as possible.

In the end, members of the task force agreed the policy was a start, and that it can be changed along the way.

City Council member Conor Casey noted, “It is fluid. After it is implemented, it can be changed. We can be nimble here.”

Task force member Carolyn Ridpath agreed the policy should go to the Council, saying, “The city needs to have guidelines. Things can be changed. We can move on to deal with hygiene, and lockers.”

Also in agreement was task force member Ericka Reil, who said, “I am fine with the way it is. I haven’t heard much of other alternatives.”

And with that, amid a brief protest from Whitaker, the task force moved it along.