Home News and Features A Perfect Storm: Homelessness in Central Vermont

A Perfect Storm: Homelessness in Central Vermont

An elderly guest at the Good Samaritan Welcome Center on the Barre-Montpelier Road in Berlin. Photo by Jocelyn Hebert.
Homeless shelters across the nation are reporting a surge in people seeking help, and central Vermont is no exception, according to Rick DeAngelis, co-executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven, who gave a talk to about 60 at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center last week.

During his presentation, “A Perfect Storm,” DeAngelis spoke of one person staying at the Good Samaritan “Welcome Center” shelter on the Barre-Montpelier Road who walks up the steep highway connector hill from Route 302 to Walmart for a $19-per-hour night-shift job. Another woman at the shelter cleans the many Airbnb units on College Street in Montpelier for a living (and ironically gets to see up close one of the drivers behind a tight rental market). The message is clear: Having a job does not mean you can afford rent.

“All these years in affordable housing, I have never seen a situation this bad with homelessness,” DeAngelis said in a phone interview after his talk. 

Homeless in Winter

In Washington County alone, at last count, 434 individuals are homeless, he said. Of those, 314 are in motels, 65 are in shelters, and 55 are unsheltered. These numbers probably understate the problem, he said, based on unofficial counts from Good Samaritan’s street outreach workers. The state program that funds motel rooms for the homeless — Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program — is running out of money, he said, and may be completely out by March 2023. 

On top of that, the winter overflow shelter at Christ Church may not be offered this year due to a lack of qualified staff. DeAngelis said shelter “staffing is challenging, and overflow staffing is the hardest.” In an email to The Bridge, he also said Good Samaritan is considering a partnership with Another Way and church volunteers to run an overflow shelter. He did not go into more detail, except to say that nothing has been decided yet.

Guertin Shelter: To Be or Not to Be?

Because the beds are limited — and mostly filled — at Good Samaritan’s three sites and the state motel money is running out, it’s not clear what will happen with the approximately 36 homeless and unsheltered people currently in Montpelier. One option discussed at the Montpelier City Council meeting last week was returning the “Guertin shelter,” a lean-to originally intended for the public to use as a resting site along public walking paths, but which instead became a congregating site for unsheltered folks last winter. The highly visible Main Street site became so controversial with complaints of noise, public disturbance, and regular visits from police and ambulances that the city removed it earlier this year. But with winter approaching, it — or a similar shelter — may reappear. (See City Council story in this issue). 

On the Guertin shelter, DeAngelis said “People who hang around Montpelier — there’s a high degree of substance use in those crowds. Most of them were kicked out of shelters.” Asked about bringing back the Guertin shelter, he said that without an overflow shelter, “I’m not sure it’s wise to have it. Individuals may try to use it overnight or semi-permanently. If so there could be public health and/or life safety concerns. It could be deadly.”

Causes of Homelessness

“What’s really behind this is the housing market,” DeAngelis said. He cited a report from Vermontbiz.com that said Vermont has the second lowest rental vacancy rate in the nation. Because of that, in central Vermont, he said “some people have been living in a motel room for almost three years.”

In August, Vermontbiz reported that “In order to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent in Vermont, renters need to earn $23.40 per hour, or $48,664 annually.” So that $19-an-hour Walmart job? It’s not going to pay the rent.

DeAngelis based much of his presentation on the “Washington County Continuum of Care Homelessness Research Project,” a report recently released with support from the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force and Good Samaritan Haven. (See sidebar).

He identified family support as the number one most important factor in preventing homelessness. In fact, when asked what people can do to help, one of his answers was ”support policies that strengthen families.”

The report’s survey of 107 local houseless individuals showed the causes of homelessness. Divorce or a break up was the most common (21%), economic reasons and substance use followed at 18.3% each, and a lost job was the third most common reason. Other causes include physical condition, mental health, having to move, domestic violence or abuse, the justice system and eviction or unstable housing.

Hospital “dumping” happens more frequently than most people know, DeAngelis told the crowd. “We get people who are frail and sick,” he said. “The hospital dumps them at our door.”

Many people have ended up homeless during the surge in housing prices, as landlords have opted to update and sell properties that have been rentals for decades. DeAngelis cited as an example two people who had shared the same apartment for 20 years. They were neat and paid their rent on time, he said. But “The owner wanted to rehab and he asked the people to leave. They are living at the Welcome Center (emergency shelter) right now.”

Good Samaritan Haven

The Good Samaritan Haven began as a Christian emergency shelter in 1986 with a $100,000 budget, run by volunteers who monitored up to 10 people per night, for overnights only. It operated out of a house on Seminary Street in Barre that’s still in use today, and bursting at the seams.

The single-family home  now holds four bunk beds in each of its bedrooms plus the dining room. “You can’t move an inch,” DeAngelis said.

Today, the organization is secular and operates on a $2 million budget with a staff paid competitive wages, and it runs three sites — the original house on Seminary Street, the Welcome Center on Route 302, and a house in South Barre for homeless people wishing to maintain sobriety. The Seminary Street house has a capacity of 15, which DeAngelis said will increase to 20 in November. The Welcome Center has a capacity of 30 “which is what we have today,” he said, adding “We hope to be able to increase this to as much as 35 but there are reasons that we may not be able to achieve that.” And the South Barre house has a capacity of 15. 

One attendee at the talk asked DeAngelis what can be done. He replied with a list:

  • Be aware. Be present to the suffering of others. 
  • Advocate for affordable housing.
  • Volunteer with programs that help.
  • Donate: 25% of the Good Samaritan budget is private donations.
  • Food: “If you’re into cooking, we can use you.”
  • Support policies that strengthen families.
  • Build economic justice.
  • Support substance abuse recovery.

Who Funds Support Systems for Local Unhoused People?

DeAngelis said that “Given its size, Montpelier does more for homelessness than any other community in the state.” He said Montpelier provided a $10,000 award to Good Samaritan for its operations from the Community Fund, and pays part of the wages for its two street outreach workers. The City also awarded $100,000 to the development of the Welcome Center from the City Housing Trust Fund. He said the city also gave $7,000 to pay for motel rooms that are needed on a short-term emergency basis. In its FY23 budget, Montpelier allocated $425,000 for issues related to homelessness, its uses still remain to be identified but could include a day station, lockers or public toilets. 

Learn More About Homelessness

If you want to learn more, check out Root Causes of Homelessness, on Monday, Nov. 7 from  6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. This presentation, conducted by the Washington County Continuum of Care (CoC), will share the results of research into the causes of homelessness in our area. Presenters are Beth Burgess, a member of the CoC, who works at Vermont 2-1-1 (a phone and online information and referral program for local services), and Jaime Cotton, who is a recent graduate of the Public Health Masters Program at UVM. Ken Russell, executive director of Another Way, and Rick DeAngelis, co-executive director of Good Samaritan Haven, will join them for a discussion after the presentation.