Amid a flurry of advocates cobbling together winter solutions for the unhoused, three local homeless people died over an eight-day period in November, according to Ken Russell, chair of Montpelier’s Homelessness Task Force and executive director of Another Way. One of the three was a regular at the Guertin Shelter “pocket park” he said.
Citing privacy restrictions, Russell declined to provide names of the deceased for this article. After a series of interviews and email exchanges with The Bridge, Russell provided a statement referring to three additional deaths within the same time period. He wrote:
“In an eight day spell, we received reports of six different people dying, either on the streets or in motels. Upon examination, only three of those reports were corroborated. There was evidence to suggest a fourth incident did involve an overdose, and two other rumored overdoses are unconfirmed. That said, at least three people did die between Nov. 15 and Nov. 22, and there was confirmation of an uptick in overdoses by the Montpelier Police Department. There are structural reasons why not every death would be known, including, most importantly, the privacy of the grieving families. It can be said that folks living on the street or in vulnerable situations, such as motels, suffer challenges, including premature death, that folks living in warm homes can only imagine.”
Despite a Good Samaritan overflow shelter that provides a warm overnight space for up to 10 people at Montpelier’s Christ Church and Gov. Scott reinstating the state’s emergency motel program through March 2022, people still fall through the cracks and end up sleeping outside in Vermont’s coldest months, Russell said.
“If you’re outside, what do you do to keep warm? What do you do to regulate your feelings? A lot of people turn to substances,” Russell said. “I’m not going to fault someone who’s spending a night outside for getting a bottle.”
Russell estimates that 50 to 60 people live unhoused in the Barre/Montpelier area. On any given winter night, about 10 of them end up on Montpelier’s streets, kicked out of motel rooms or shelters for not following rules or “making bad choices.” The best bet for making it through the night at that point is a donated sleeping bag and a spot near a heating vent.
Russell described complex causes of homelessness, including mental health, addiction, high housing costs, “evicting people from mental institutions,” and others. A life event such as a divorce could put someone on the streets, he said. Drug use, alcoholism, and “survival sex” can be as much a symptom of surviving an unhoused life as a cause, he said.
“I used to say it’s going to take someone to die out there for people to wake up,” he said. “But then I realized that people die out there all the time, but they’re forgotten people. So it’s like it never happened.”
“When service providers go out … our number one concern is ‘Who’s next?’” said Ericka Reil, who, as a peer support specialist and systems builder at Another Way, serves alongside Russell on the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force and also serves as a ward 3 city councilor in Barre, as well as the chair of the Barre Homelessness Task Force. “We have close connections to people on the streets. If we don’t see someone for a while, we worry.”
“Sometimes we keep a checklist,” Reil said. “‘Have you seen so and so?’ We have to figure out where that person is. Sometimes we’re the only connection they have. We’re the only ones looking out for them. It’s been really tough. We’ve lost a lot of people.”
Homelessness task forces in both Barre City and Montpelier have been focusing efforts on winter warming spaces. In Montpelier, the Green Mountain Transit Authority station on Taylor Street will be open extended winter hours, weekdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., providing a warm space with public bathrooms and peer support. In Barre City, the Aldrich Public Library will be open soon as a warming station weekdays from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. with staff, public bathrooms, and snacks, said Reil. A start date and decision about opening on weekends will be determined later this week, she said.
Warming spaces are one part of the winter puzzle, which includes the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, plus its overflow shelters, and the state of Vermont’s General Assistance Emergency Housing Program, which provides motel vouchers in adverse weather conditions through March 1, 2022. Out of the $80,000 allocated in the city of Montpelier’s budget for its Homelessness Task Force ($45,000 of which is covered by federal funds), line items include:
$23,580 to expand the city’s peer outreach program to share a full-time position between the city and the Good Samaritan Haven. The previously funded position “is “very effective,” Russell said, “and allows people with lived experience to meet other people with lived experience and help them out.”
$16,103 funds cleaning, staffing, and increased overhead costs to keep the Transit Center open extended hours as a warming shelter.
$7,500 funds additional motel rooms (beyond what the state offers) to provide a space for those who may not get into the state motel room program.
$3,600 adds ten hours a week to Another Way’s existing five-hour-per-week emergency transportation program, providing rides to people who need transportation to or from the hospital, shelters, or other “emergent transportation needs.”
$5,000 contributes to the Good Samaritan overflow shelter for food and other unplanned costs.
$25,000 — the largest chunk of the budget — is allocated to fund a consultant to study a day shelter option in Washington County ($15,000), and to help fund a Washington County Continuum of Care study looking at the root causes of homelessness ($10,000).
With the state emergency motel program available again through the winter, Riel said, “It’s great people are going back into hotels, but there are a lot of folks being left out. There’s also a population that’s not going back to hotels, and we’re not hearing about those.”
Stressing her concern about losing more of the people she considers family, Reil said “The stress, the unknowing of what’s going to happen, where you’ll sleep tonight … the domestic abuse, drug abuse, almost doubles … just from people not knowing where they’re going to live, where food is coming from. … When service providers go out, our number one concern is ‘Who’s next?’”
“When a person living outdoors dies, it is often a non-event for the greater community,” Russell concluded in his emailed statement. “Folks who are forgotten in life are forgotten in death. I believe that it is a moral imperative for us to care, and to make sure that those who die in the shadows are held up, to honor those lives, and to remind ourselves of our undone work as a community.”
How You Can Help
The following list is provided by Another Way.
Donate to the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Incidental Fund. Contact Cameron Niedermeyer, Assistant City Manager: 802-262-6250.
Donate to Another Way (anotherwayvt.org), Good Samaritan Haven (goodsamaritanhaven.org), or other direct service providers.
Donate equipment: Call Another Way (802-229-0920) or contact Good Samaritan Haven’s Street Outreach Worker Dawn Little by text (802-272-7914).