The nation’s housing crisis came into sharp focus locally, as the Montpelier City Council recently discussed the findings of a report commissioned by the city’s Homelessness Task Force. The consulting firm Parker Advisors presented its recommendations on March 22, after nearly six months reviewing data, talking to 75 individuals, including a dozen people currently experiencing homelessness, attending 40 housing-related meetings, and hosting several of its own gatherings.
Parker Advisors representatives Paul Capcara and Daniel Towle offered a path forward to destigmatize homelessness, create a master housing plan, and educate the public. They said they are not seeking new city funding, but rather suggest the city use the $425,000 in ARPA funding it has already allocated to address homelessness issues to implement their recommendations. Some who spoke at the meeting urged “realism” in terms of how the report’s recommendations would be funded, indicating that the ARPA funds may not be enough.
“It’s a very complex problem. It’s important to be able to draw down resources from the state and from the feds,” said Ken Russell, executive director of Another Way. “It’s also important to think about this as we’re in a community that we share together, and we need to problem solve from the ground up and look at folks as our neighbors. How do we share space and how do we consider the common good here?”
As part of their research, Parker Advisors reviewed data about homelessness, affordable housing, and housing in general, Towle said. “Then … We met with over 75 individual stakeholders, including over a dozen people who are currently experiencing homelessness,” he said, along with people from mental health services, city officials, first responders, faith community members, and business owners. They also participated in over 40 meetings related to housing and held several gatherings in-person and on Zoom and met regularly with the Homelessness Task Force, he said.
Out of that research Capcara and Towle produced a “Montpelier Homelessness Needs Assessment and Action Plan” that ultimately recommends creating a master plan, a housing hub, and a detailed public education campaign.
Create a Master Plan
The city needs a current master housing plan that prioritizes affordable housing, Capcara said, adding later in his presentation “especially because there’s a lot of fragmentation that’s going on right now” related to individual housing projects in the works.
“If this problem is to stabilize and improve in the future in Montpelier, we need a plan for how we’re going to create more housing in general as well as more affordable housing as part of that,” he said. “It’s becoming increasingly more difficult for working class, low-income people to afford housing in Montpelier.”
Some projects are currently in the pipeline, he noted — such as a new 34-unit subdivision at Isabel Circle and an affordable housing development on Northfield Street spearheaded by the Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity. Based on past housing plans that never went anywhere, Capcara warned that a housing master plan should identify barriers to completing housing projects, and the “city council and other entities seek to remove those barriers to ensure that projects that are talked about actually get realized.”
Create a Housing Hub
The second priority Capcara presented is the concept of a “housing hub” to encompass both an emergency winter shelter along with an array of social services and supports that might help people find permanent housing. The hub so far is not married to a specific building, but the public brought up a few ideas, including using the city-owned recreation center on Barre Street.
Capcara noted that the organizations that have hosted winter overflow shelters in the past may not be doing so in the future.
“Each year there’s been sort of a scramble in order to get [winter overflow shelters] organized to make the space appropriate for use as emergency overnight shelter, and it’s almost like we’re reinventing the wheel every year,” Capcara said. The goal is to provide emergency housing to those who have nowhere to sleep in the winters, Capcara said. “We’re literally trying to prevent people from freezing to death.”
And while that’s happening, he said a housing hub can include the kind of services that can address barriers to permanent housing and begin to work toward long-term solutions.
Public Education Plan
Parker Advisors’ third recommendation is to implement a public education plan under the supervision of the Homelessness Task Force. Such a plan should be designed to both create awareness around homelessness issues and reduce the stigma attached to it, Towle said.
Ultimately, he said, the goal of a public education plan is to “build support and momentum around not only these recommendations but other related housing and homeless issues here in Montpelier in Washington County,” to help build understanding, empathy, and knowledge, he said, in order to break down stigma and discrimination. The plan would also “address inequities of the marginalized communities such as BIPOC and LBGTQ+ in the context of housing.”
A public education plan would rely heavily on a Homelessness Peer Council, made up of six to nine individuals currently unhoused or who have been unhoused in the past. Towle emphasized the importance that this peer council create its own charter and direction. The idea, he said, is for the council to “bring the voice of people with lived experience, not just … as a few little token comments, but involved in every stage of the process of some of the major things going on that affect them.”
Also key, Towle said, is a major communications plan designed to “educate the public not only about homelessness, housing insecurity, and affordable housing, but also about the critical housing issues that are faced by all of us here in Montpelier in Washington County.”
The plan Towle described is also meant to create volunteer opportunities and interactions “to cultivate a real and balanced view of homelessness while dispelling stereotypes and biases.” For example, he said, “people who’ve experienced homelessness are no more likely to be dangerous or violent than any of the rest of us in the community and often are blamed for acts done by folks who are not homeless.”
As a backdrop to the report, the state’s crisis motel voucher program and the Christ Church emergency warming program are both ending, leaving up to 450 people unhoused in central Vermont. According to those who spoke at the meeting, the needs of the chronically homeless and the need for public bathrooms are unaddressed in the report. Fraser promised a “new housing plan this summer” and at the same time stated that the city has no dollars for upkeep, site management and supervision, or land or buildings to address long-term shelter and services. Fraser asked “What are we willing to commit to and do?” He added that he will provide funding information related to the recommendations of Parker Advisors to the city council at its next meeting.
Valentyn Smith and Linda Berger contributed reporting to this story.