Montpelier’s city councilors voted Wednesday evening to move the controversial Guertin structure from its current location on Main Street near Shaw’s supermarket into storage. The motion passed with two councilors dissenting: Conor Casey and Lauren Hierl.
The decision followed discussion with members of the city’s Homelessness Task Force, the chief officers of both the fire and police departments, and residents of Montpelier, including several among the unhoused who have been congregating at the shelter since it was moved to Main Street in the fall of 2021.
Fire Chief Robert Gowans and Police Chief Brian Peete updated the council about the on-going incidents of fires, litter, drug use, public intoxication, fights, and other incidents that have involved responses by officers or EMT personnel since the relocation of the structure to Main Street. “I am afraid someone is going to be seriously hurt,” Gowans said, adding that, “It needs to be relocated until we have figured out what to do about it.”
Chief Peete noted that “People aren’t living there. They are leaving during the night. It’s more of a congregational area.” Peete’s frustration is that when there have been incidents of violence and physical harm, the victims have declined to cooperate and have refused the support of social services offered by state and community organizations. He also cautioned that relocating the shelter will not necessarily be a solution. “Behavior problems might even escalate in another location,” he said.
Councilor Jack McCullough asked whether the police department has made arrests or issued citations. Peete replied that the options for police response are hamstrung by the courts, where citations are usually dismissed. “We are waiting for guidance from the Police Advisory Committee,” he said. “The primary concern is public intoxication.”
The fires, which some at the shelter have built for warmth on particularly cold days, are more misdemeanor issues than arson,” Peete said.
Councilor Conor Casey said, “Whatever decision we make will have unintended consequences. In some respects, it is beneficial being where it is, as the human services providers have pointed out.”
Peete replied that, “Officers do have good relationships with the people at the shelter. But you are not going to be able to control what happens; no one expects the behavior to change.”
Chris (no last name given), a homeless person who recently relocated to Montpelier, said he found assistance from social services providers he met at the shelter and has been living at the EconoLodge on Northfield Street. “There needs to be a mediator, showers, and a porta-potty,” at the Main Street park, he said.
Stephen Whitaker, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the most recent city elections, reiterated his concern that the situation results from “crimes of indifference by the council,” noting that no meeting of the toilet committee has been held, no paper trail about the “huge” number of calls about the shelter can be found, and that the “cops still haven’t owned up to stealing Billy’s beers.”
“Fires are harmless on that hill. People need to stay warm, Whitaker said, adding that he regards the city’s response, “Very hypocritical.”
Peter Kelman, a resident of Mountainview Street, reminded the council that he has submitted a proposal to the city with suggestions for dealing with the situation of the unhoused and would love to hear their response.