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Local Orgs Prep for 30% Increase in Homeless Population

Local organizations and city officials are mobilizing to meet an expected dramatic increase in homeless people when both the local overflow shelter at Christ Church and state-funded emergency motel room accommodations end this spring.

Central Vermont’s homeless population could increase by nearly 30%, with more than 130 people joining those already living unhoused, according to Rick DeAngelis, co-executive director of Good Samaritan Haven.

In response, Good Samaritan Haven, the shelters of which are full, and Another Way, a Montpelier organization that helps the homeless, announced they are raising $20,000 to pay for camping supplies, food, medical supplies, and other basics. And Montpelier’s city council is considering using the Barre Street Recreation Center as a shelter. 

“A perfect storm of factors has emerged, including a historically tight housing market and the end of federal and state assistance for emergency motel housing,” said DeAngelis. “We will continue to work for better solutions, but for now, we need to help prepare all those who have no recourse but to live on the streets and in the woods.” 

Ericka Reil, chair of the Barre City homelessness task force, reported to the Barre City Council last week: “[The state is] exiting … people from the hotels. Currently (there’s) no plans where folks are going to be housed. All the shelters are full. Where are folks going to be? They’re going to be on the streets. In Montpelier, Berlin, Barre — (there are) no plans where folks are going to be. Montpelier is looking at a camping plan. Berlin does not have a camping plan and I believe that Barre does not have a camping plan.”

Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser told The Bridge that the city does have an “encampment policy,” and “The city is monitoring the hotel program. We understand the potential impact to the community but don’t have any solid options in place, nor does the state government.”

“I would like the city to investigate the cost of building a hub/shelter at the rec center. … we need something to happen soon – we have people who have needs that need to be met immediately and this seems like a way to do it,” said councilor Cary Brown.

While the Montpelier City Council awaits a staff report on what needs to happen to get the rec center ready to serve as a shelter (in addition to remaining in use as the rec center), Another Way and Good Samaritan Haven are preparing for a crisis, DeAngelis said. During its April 12 regular meeting, the Montpelier City Council discussed a recent report commissioned by the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force that calls for, among other things, a central hub to include both an emergency shelter and services under one roof.

While the report looks at long-term solutions to increasing homelessness in the central Vermont region, councilors noted the pressure to find a solution quickly. Additionally, some members of the task force said they weren’t fully behind every recommendation in the report by the consulting firm Parker Advisors. For example, a “hub,” which would put the array of supports for someone experiencing homelessness under one roof, requires operation, staffing, and a financial commitment from local agencies.

In fact, DeAngelis told the council point blank, “We’re not interested in running the housing hub. We frankly don’t think it’s the real critical part of this. We’re not convinced that providers are going to come. We’re not convinced that the public is going to come quite frankly. We do think the most critical part is the shelter and a robust street outreach program in Montpelier and the area.”

Councilor Sal Alfano doggedly addressed the option of using the Montpelier recreation center as a shelter or hub, with the understanding that the building requires rehabilitation for a number of issues, including lead, asbestos, and accessibility.

“The plan that Parker Advisors came up with didn’t even require complete mitigation,” said Alfano, a former builder. “I’m not ready to write off the rec center. I think it’s built like a tank. It has some problems that need to be solved … [and] … there’s the challenge of dual use.” 

While DeAngelis said he didn’t want to run a “hub” he did say the Barre Street rec center would make a good shelter. “What I like about it is the big open space — the basketball court. I think that’s what’s needed rather than small rooms. At the same time you have small offices.”

In last year’s budget, Montpelier set aside $425,000 for addressing homelessness, part of which has been spent on consultants. Councilors Dona Bate and Tim Heney both pointed out that it might not be enough.

“I agree the rec center still needs to be on the table,” Heney said. “It’s an asset we have. We need to look at it and study it. … the $400,000 is a good down payment, but it’s not going to be enough to do the whole thing. … the state should be involved. This is a bigger issue than just Montpelier.”

Councilor Lauren Hierl also said she thought the city should explore the rec center as a potential hub for the homeless population, but “I think we should be looking for plan Bs,” she said. Councilor Pelin Kohn, who has been attending the homelessness task force meetings, said the task force “may have alternate plans.”

One immediate plan was revealed in the release sent out on April 14: to raise $20,000 to deal with the immediate needs of the large influx of people expected to be on the streets when they no longer can lodge in state and federally funded motel rooms, at the end of May.

“I hate to burst everybody’s bubble,” said DeAngelis, attending the council meeting via Zoom, “but you’re focusing on the easiest part, the real estate … the most difficult part of trying to shelter people is to operate. And you can believe that the challenge has increased greatly over the last two months. We’ve had somebody murdered last week in a shelter in Brattleboro. One of our staff — in fact my own son — was very savagely stabbed at a warming station [in Montpelier]. … Good Sam is interested in being part of the solution here … but it’s going to have to be done in a way that we feel is safe, and in a facility that we feel is an appropriate facility, and quite frankly … it’s got to be done on our terms if we’re going to be the operator.”

DeAngelis referred to the murder of Leah Rosin-Pritchard, coordinator at Brattleboro’s Morningside House on April 3, and the stabbing of Gabriel DeAngelis, his son, in Montpelier’s transit center in February.   

Assistant Montpelier City Manager Kelly Murphy told The Bridge that at the end of the council discussion last week, “Council instructed staff to seek professional evaluation(s) of 55 Barre Street [the rec center] and report back, including the itemization of individual items (i.e., asbestos remediation). Our goal is to report back to council as soon as possible.”

While councilors wait for more information, “Our neighbors are in crisis and need our help,” said Another Way Executive Director Ken Russell.

“Good Samaritan Haven’s Street Outreach Team will be assisting individuals who are leaving the shelter and motels and providing them with gear, such as tents, sleeping bags, food, water, and other essentials needed to live outdoors,” the press release from the two organizations concluded. “If you can help, please call Good Samaritan Haven at 802-479-2294 or make a donation online at goodsamaritanhaven.org/donate.”