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Berlin Tries to Curb Impacts of Influx of Unhoused Individuals

The Berlin selectboard discusses what to do in preparation for the end of the emergency motel program housing homeless people. Screenshot from ORCA Media, May 15, 2023.
Where will they go? What will they do? 

Berlin officials tried to answer these questions during recent selectboard meetings about an influx of homeless people who must soon vacate a motel located across from the hospital. At least 40 people living at the Hilltop Inn in Berlin are known to be imminently in line to become unhoused because of the ending of the emergency motel voucher system. Statewide, the number is around 1,800, according to reports.

The motel voucher system was put in place as an emergency measure at the start of the coronavirus pandemic to safely shelter homeless people but is scheduled to end at the close of the fiscal year beginning next month. Berlin Town Administrator Vince Conti said he is putting together an ordinance about vacant buildings. When board chair Brad Towne asked what brought this about during a selectboard meeting May 1, selectman John “Joe” Staab said it was his initiative to take such a measure. Staab said he is concerned about where people will “take up residence” once the motel program ends. The ordinance would define what constitutes a vacant building versus one being “used” (maybe just for storage such as the Staples building). The board tabled the discussion but encouraged Conti to finish writing up the ordinance.

Also, relating to the influx of homeless individuals, Conti is working to adapt a policy formalizing emergency outdoor encampment such as the one Montpelier adopted. Montpelier’s policy, approved in September 2021, states, “The city of Montpelier and its staff shall take a general non-involvement approach to any found emergency sleeping camp sites, with the particular lens of not criminalizing people creating shelter due to a lack of housing.” Further, staff will only ask encampments to relocate if they are in “high-sensitivity areas” such as right next to schools, recreational paths, emergency services access, environmentally sensitive areas, or on private property. Additionally, encampments will be discouraged at places unsafe for any human habitation, such as areas infested with rats or overrun with garbage and debris. Also, encampments with pervasive criminal activity will be dispersed.

The policy explicitly states it is not intended to “permit or affirmatively allow” camping within the municipality, but is rather intended to address “emergency situations where individuals without other resources have been left with no other option apart from camping.” Part of the policy is that city staff will actively try to connect people sleeping outside overnight with any available shelters.

During a follow-up meeting May 15, Berlin selectboard members expressed explicit concern about the draft policy related to what to do with items removed from a homeless camp after it has been relocated. The Montpelier appendix, titled “Unattended Camp Clean-up Protocol Policy,” states that camps will be given seven days’ notice of the need to relocate, then staff will return in seven days and photograph the camp before removing items. The removed items are to be stored in the basement of the Rec Center building on Barre Street in Montpelier for 90 days. Berlin officials balked at that part of the policy.

Selectboard member Flo Smith said she believes there is no place in Berlin to store such things.

Another selectboard member said “I feel we should have the right to immediately dispose of hazards to public safety either based on the town health officer or fire chief. Do we have the space available to store this stuff if we get to that point? I would be leery to store any of it to tell you the truth.”

But Staab expressed hesitance about taking items away immediately without offering a chance to reclaim them. “If we take it away … it may not be worth much, but it is all they have,” Staab said.

Conti said he would change the wording in such an instance that if the town must clean up an abandoned campsite, “we will immediately dispose of it — discarded, donated, or sold.” He emphasized that owners of such items would have been given reasonable notice in advance of clean up and disposal. “Whatever they leave behind, we have the right to take. We’re not going to come in in the middle of the night and pillage the place and take everything away. If they move on, whatever they’ve abandoned, they’ve abandoned,” Conti said. However, Conti said he will take comments and revise the policy. Selectboard member Ture Nelson suggested Conti get input from the police department and Sgt. Chad Bassette (saying of Bassette, “he’s our town expert on the homeless situation.”) Berlin already has a few known homeless encampments. Bassette has chronicled his forays into bringing supplies and assistance to these encampments over the years on social media.

The board said they would revisit the topic during future meetings.