I can’t help but wonder what those without homes think when I see that Montpelier’s Homeless Task Force has requested $35,883 from city council; or hear of the controversy over the homeless camping in Hubbard Park; or learn of the state of Vermont offering $2,500 to people who vacate motel rooms they have occupied as an emergency option during the pandemic.
Curious about how those at the center of these issues feel, I interviewed 13 homeless people in Montpelier. The following are excerpts from some of their stories, also news about protesters camping and sleeping on the Vermont State House steps “until Scott’s policies change.” Several interviewees asked to be identified by first names only.
A Quiet Racism
Now 48, Lucian has been homeless off and on since 2007. A widower, he feels humiliated asking his five children for financial help. Asked his thoughts about a $2,500 stipend for leaving a motel room, he answered, “Can anyone pay a security deposit and rent an apartment with that amount?”
Asked if he thought racism might have anything to do with the difficulty he described in getting a job and finding a place to live (Lucian is black), he responded, “Southerners feel free to express racism. Vermonters feel it underneath. It’s a quiet racism here.”
Homeless but not Helpless
William, 47, has been homeless for 15 years. Not having collected enough money while soliciting contributions on a street one day, he changed his sign from “Homeless, every little bit helps” to “Homeless but not Helpless.”
“Within one hour I collected $40,” he said. “Scott should stay out with the homeless for a week to see what we’re like. The $2,500 is bull….”
Casey, 41, got lucky. He had been a patient in a psychiatric hospital; with the help of his case manager, he received a waiver from the Montpelier Housing Authority’s requirement that renters provide a landlord reference. Casey will finally have housing this month.
He’d been sleeping in Hubbard Park regularly a few years ago. One afternoon, he said, two employees “dismantled my tarp and without explanation made off with that and my sleeping bag while I stood and watched. … I’d been told camping there was legal.”
“Several years ago Parks staff, during a regular clean-up of the State House Path, cleaned up what they thought was a pile of abandoned trash, but turned out to contain a number of Casey’s belongings,” responded Parks Director Alec Ellsworth. “The event was unfortunate for everyone involved, and it sparked a rethinking on the city’s part of how to clean up abandoned campsites … We now have a well-established policy of giving 72 hours notice before cleaning up any abandoned campsites, as well as leaving resources on how to find local shelter, food, and other services. We also notify the outreach worker from Good Samaritan Haven, who attempts to find the owner of the abandoned property. After cleanup, the items are held at the Recreation Center on Barre Street, and a note is left on site giving the owners of the property a chance to retrieve it.”
Breakfast in Barre; Lunch in Montpelier
Tammy, 50, lived in a van with her husband for six and a half years. In case of danger, they kept a knife handy while homeless. Tammy started working as an outreach support specialist at Another Way, on Barre Street, a day before I spoke with her.
“My job is to work with the outreach workers that are actually on the street helping the homeless,” she explained.
“There are approximately 45 to 75 homeless on the streets between both Montpelier and Barre City… Barre offers breakfasts and Montpelier offers lunches and dinners; so people transit back and forth between the two cities,” Tammy said.
“There are two types of homeless people,” she continued. “Hard core drug addicts who don’t want anything to do with society. And others, who want to work, but often can’t because they have no address and don’t know that post office general delivery mail can be saved for them and picked up every 30 days.”
At the State House
Three protesters camping on the State House steps had been there 20 days when I interviewed them. A fourth recently joined them.
“Sleeping here is horrible,” said spokesperson Brenda Siegel, who ran for governor in 2018. “But what we’re determined to get is a reinstatement by Gov. Scott of the program whereby federal reimbursement funds can be used to continue housing the homeless in motels. Residents currently there can remain until the end of December. But where will they go when, in the middle of winter, they have to leave? And what about the 1,000 Vermonters currently on the street who can’t get into motels between now and December 31?”
Siegel herself is housed; she also earned an impressive one quarter of the vote in her first try running for governor of Vermont in 2018.
A significant chunk of the $35,883 requested of the city council by Montpelier’s Homeless Task Force will be used for peer outreach expansion through the Good Samaritan Haven. As I understand it, that means that efforts to talk with homeless people on the streets will include questions about what they think would work for them. A good idea, I think.
Ron Merkin has been a journalist in both New York City and Europe. He currently resides in Montpelier.