by Kenneth Russell
This work is humbling, it causes you to lose whatever caricature you had about those living outdoors and take seriously their plight. You learn their stories and senses of humor. You learn how folks have worked out of homelessness, taking quiet pride in their accomplishments. You learn how some never stop with self-doubt, yet forge ahead. You learn how a marriage gone bad, a death, a bad choice — has dragged them out of the middle class and onto the street. You see the ongoing cost to dignity, from contempt of passersby to the existential struggle getting from point A to point B. It is humbling to see how folks respond, often with grit and a sense of dignity. These are moments of grace.
You also see folks who fall into self-destructive habits. Anyone who has dealt with addiction knows these demons. These are not immoral choices, they are acts of desperation, deep pain, resignation. I see it in people’s eyes, and I can relate. My own life has not always made sense, my choices not always healthy. I can’t imagine living outdoors in a Vermont winter and not being tempted. My dad struggled with alcoholism, enabled and joined by others in small town Vermont bars and backrooms. Winters were the toughest. Folks in that small Vermont town knew grinding poverty, and we knew that what bound us transcended the quaint postcards for sale in the local pharmacy. Even though we might have fallen, we were there for each other.
In Montpelier, too, there is a network that practices empathetic collective strength to hold those in dark passageways. It is an honor to be part of this work and to stand by folks on the street. It is a gift to know that this is part of who we all are. We grapple with issues that one might associate with bigger cities and are doing so with small-town fabric and compassion.
Some of that fabric-strengthening involves systems work done by our network: our interfaith and social services allies; the city of Montpelier and the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force funding street outreach positions, the overflow shelter at Christ Church, and extended Transit Center hours; buying motel rooms for folks in need, the mass feeding and provision of winter gear. These all represent not just smart ways of improving community resilience, but express love and compassion. We hear many expressions of gratitude from the unhoused population, and from citizens, for these efforts.
We are building a network of mutual care that honors our whole community, and that recognizes the need for a healthy and compassionate downtown. We need well-managed places for people to congregate in dignity, we need public spaces that accommodate and honor all of us. We are actively working on better solutions than some of the maddeningly imperfect fixes that we have backed into, and we will be discussing these plans soon.
I do want to talk about the impulse to send folks “away,” as if it is somehow a moral choice to flush one’s city of undesirables. First, it should be acknowledged that most of the people living outdoors have roots in Montpelier and have been part of this community for years, often generations. Of course, we also welcome newcomers.
Second, we already send people to prisons, mental hospitals, and motels. One can argue that these institutions have a role, and yes, it is good, with motels, to give people respite from the elements. But conditions can be difficult, dangerous, and lonely. Folks are often required to stay in their rooms, not allowed to visit neighbors. Criminal activity is rampant and difficult to address. Food deliveries have slowed to a trickle. One service provider describes “desperation in every doorway.” In Washington county, there are 188 adults and 59 children in motels. That’s a lot of doorways, a lot of work to be done.
Finally, I must say I find it abhorrent to relegate human beings to dehumanizing categories or to wish them away. I believe that those of us who have resources have a moral duty to help those less fortunate, be they messy, huddled masses, or even drunk and stoned. We have the strength and moral fiber to embrace all of us, and to work together for health, wealth, and well-being. We can do this.
Ken Russell is the Executive Director of Another Way and the Chair of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force.
“We support this perspective”
- Rev. Amy Pitton, Bethany United Church of Christ
- Rev. Joan Javier Duval, Unitarian Church of Montpelier
- Rev. Yunki Kim, Trinity Methodist Church
- Rev. Kevin Holland Sparrow, priest Christ Episcopal Church
- Rev. Stephen Reynes, deacon Christ Church
- Rev. Beth Ann Maier, deacon Christ Church
- Fr. Julian Asucan, St Augustine Church
- Peter Kelman, Citizen of Montpelier
- Carolyn Ridpath, Montpelier Homelessness Task Force
- Rick DeAngelis, Good Samaritan Haven
- Claire Kendall and Kathi Partlow, Family Center of Washington County
- Sue Minter, Dawn Butterfield, and Casey Winterson, Capstone Community Action
- Mary Moulton, Washington County Mental Health Services