Home News and Features Solving Homelessness

Solving Homelessness

Dan Towle. Photo courtesy of J. Gregory Gerdel.
– We need to listen

If any consensus emerged among the participants in last week’s discussions about homelessness and shortages of places for aspiring residents to live, it is this: the community, or in this case several communities, need to facilitate better communication among residents, the unhoused, service organizations, landlords, building owners, and the various city officials and committees that have a role in the seemingly intractable problems of housing shortages and a steadily increasing number of homeless people in the Capital City region.

To that end, two “listening” sessions were facilitated on Thursday, Dec. 22, by Dan Towle, a consultant with Parker Advisors, which has a contract with the city of Montpelier to manage information from the several subgroups of citizens and property owners who have either an interest in housing or a need to find a place to live. Towle opened each session by explaining that the objective of the discussion is to define a process of “action steps” for improving the overlapping concerns about a shortage of housing and the demand to provide services for an unprecedented number of unhoused people in Washington County. “Our focus is on solutions,” Towle said, “not putting another study on the shelf. Communication about services and resources is currently lacking — both to the homeless and among the supportive organizations.”

Perceptions and Misperceptions

The established ‘facts’ of the situation are daunting, Towle acknowledged. As winter arrives, approximately 450 people in Washington County are homeless because of a variety of circumstances that are almost as varied and complex as the number of unhoused people, he said. “It’s important to understand the personal stories.”

Asked if anyone registers the people who are homeless, Towle explained, “It is a very fluid community. Because of the stigma, many people don’t want to be identified as homeless.” He referred to Good Samaritan Haven’s Director Rick DeAngelis’s description of the situation: “While many people flow through unhoused situations due to circumstances that are not their fault, some are choosing to be unhoused.” Staying in the existing shelters and using services requires respecting behavior standards set by each facility, he noted.

Deborah Glottmann said that evictions are increasingly a factor causing homelessness. “As a landlord who understands both sides of the issue, I’ve had my places trashed. But currently there’s nothing available out there, and it appears the middle ground of people are leaving because it is too expensive to live here.”  A former funeral home on Main Street could be renovated for housing, but still sits empty, she noted.

Jessica Oparowski, who rents her home in Montpelier and serves on the city’s Housing Task Force, said she attended the meeting “because I don’t know enough.” That is a reality she believes is shared by many in the community.

Josh Jerome said that as a Montpelier resident, “It’s hard to understand who is homeless” and that the behavior of a few creates a negative impression among residents. He and Oparowski both have observed that the bus shelter on Main Street in front of the Shaw’s parking lot has become a new gathering place since the removal of the Guertin gazebo from the nearby green space last spring. 

Towle responded that the complexity of the situation is a given. Public perception that the problem is caused by alcohol and drug abuse or mental illness distorts the reality. In fact, those issues reflect only about 20% of the individuals or families caught in the cycle of being unhoused, he said.

What is Working Now?

When Towle asked attendees at the in-person session, “What is working in dealing with homelessness?” the response ranged from “not much” to “a lot is not working.”

Glottmann, who attended both sessions, joined Gerard Renfro in the latter assessment. Glottmann has become engaged with the homeless situation through her organization, Mitvah, which provides veterinary care to animals and pets whose owners cannot afford to pay for their pets’ health needs. In recent years treating those pets has increasingly involved owners who have no apartment or home of their own. Renfro, who had volunteered in a local food kitchen a decade ago, is amazed that the number of people needing services is almost four-fold what it was at that time.

Andrea Stander, who has recently retired from her career working for and managing nonprofit, environmentally focused organizations, put the problem in a personal perspective. Between the shortage of housing and the rising cost of rentals “I’m concerned that I may not be able to stay in Montpelier,” she said.

An in-migration of climate and pandemic refugees who can afford to pay cash above the asking price for houses has inflated the market and left few properties available for purchase.

Stander’s overriding concern for the coming months was supported by the group: “I don’t want to see anybody die,” she said. “We need to be having more conversation about this. We need to understand how easy it can be to become homeless.”

Barre is Engaged

Participants in the noon hour virtual session included two Barre residents who have been active in dealing with the same issues in the Twin City. Steve Finner and Joe Mueller are members of a small group of Barre City volunteers who have established a warming center at the Aldrich Library and are working with churches, local businesses, and service organizations to coordinate access to community meals. Finner said it is important to liaison with the Montpelier Task Force on Homelessness.

Recent projects have included teaching the homeless how to use the Green Mountain Transit bus service. Mueller noted that their group has recently arranged the contribution of 36 sleeping bags for distribution to unsheltered people. Finner added that they are hoping to arrange a donation of warm socks with a local manufacturer.

Public Restroom Access Remains Limited

Although the issue has been on the table for several years, access to public restrooms remains a problem. Although several restrooms (city hall, the transit center, Shaw’s supermarket) are available during the day, Glottmann pointed out that no public restrooms are available after 10:00 p.m.

Towle explained that although the city owns the transit center, it is operated and staffed to the extent that it is under a lease agreement with the bus service, Green Mountain Transit, limiting the control the city has over the use of the building.

Caroline Ridpath, a member of the Public Restroom committee, explained that while the committee was established many months ago, it has yet to meet. Down to only two members at one point, it now has several new members and expects to begin meeting soon.

Are Housing Solutions Coming?

Several potential housing developments are in various stages of planning or review:

    Vermont College of Fine Arts dormitories have been suggested as a possibility for conversion to apartments. But an initial review indicates that the required renovations will be costly.

    The Habitat for Humanity project off Northfield Street.

    Isabelle Circle, a proposed cluster development of single family homes and cottages.

    The Country Club Road property now owned by the city and currently under review to clarify environmental and traffic impacts that will be created by various development designs.

    Expansion of the current Home Share program. Participants also noted that Montpelier has many large, residential homes that house fewer people than in the past. “We have older people living in houses larger than they need or want, but there are no places for them to downsize. Can we create programs to make it easier for people to move out of their ‘too big’ house?” Stander asked.