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Homeless Exodus Expected by End of May

man sleeping on bench, no shoes, autumn light
A man sleeps on a bench in front of the Kellogg Hubbard Library in Montpelier. Photo by Morgan Brown.
City officials in Montpelier, Barre, and Berlin are calling for action by state government as they brace for the impact of hundreds of people expected to be ousted from the state’s motel program in just a few weeks. 

In all, over 2,800 Vermonters will have to leave motels as a pandemic-era federally funded program expires this month. Without federal dollars to keep the program afloat, the Vermont State Legislature last week passed a budget that did not include funding to extend the program, which — although imperfect — has kept roofs over the heads of those without other options. 

With homeless shelters filled to capacity, and a housing shortage that has affected low- and moderate-income people across the nation, there isn’t an easy answer to what happens when people without a place to live come to town. Those on the front lines are saying the state needs to step up to address the problem rather than leaving it to municipal governments and nonprofit organizations that are already working beyond their capacity.

“Many elected officials simply don’t know what to expect or how bad it’s going to get,” said Barre City Mayor Jake Hemmerick. “Dumping thousands of unhoused people onto the streets of Vermont will have an impact — just like a flood displacing 2,000 people in mobile home parks would have an impact. We’re bracing for this like an emergency, but we hope it will be more than just ‘Barre Strong,’ because we need a ‘Vermont Strong’ approach to this.”

Montpelier, Barre City, and Berlin have teamed up with the Good Samaritan Haven, Another Way, Washington County Mental Health, Capstone Community Action, and — most recently — the Vermont Agency of Human Services to address the problem. The group has been meeting to prepare for an expected “exodus” from the motel program of over 200 households in central Vermont alone, said Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action in Barre City. Those households include children, she emphasized.

“We’ve certainly never ever seen an influx at that scale in our small communities and that’s why I think the communities are feeling that this is an emergency,” Minter said.

The State Budget

The group held a press conference last week to call on legislators to continue funding the housing program “while permanent options are explored and developed,” Montpelier Mayor Jack McCullough said at the conference.

Montpelier state representatives Conor Casey and Kate McCann heard the call, and joined a group of Democrats and Progressives to uphold a veto of the budget from Gov. Phil Scott unless it includes at least $32 million to keep the motel program another three months and transition people to longer term housing, Casey said. 

“We need some time to get shelters in place,” he said. “We’re at least trying to get a bandaid on this because it’s going to be real bad real soon.” The veto override session is scheduled for June 20, and by then, he noted “a good portion of people will be evicted.”

The ending of the motel program means “Montpelier can expect a flood of folks who will find themselves once again unhoused when they are asked to leave the motels in our area,” McCann said in an email to The Bridge. “It’s unacceptable to put the responsibility on the city …. It is imperative that the state government provide a responsible and humane end to the motel program.”

Casey, a former Montpelier city councilor, echoed McCann’s sentiment, adding that “The issue of homelessness was a top priority for our constituents. Personally, I chose to leave city council and run for higher office because I saw the limitations of city government acting as a social service agency. However, instead of making a bad situation better, we’re moving in the direction of making it worse by putting [200-plus] Washington County households out on the street with no transition plan. This includes children and folks with serious disabilities…”

Tents and Sleeping Bags

Good Samaritan Haven and Another Way have raised $15,000 toward a $20,000 goal to purchase sleeping bags, tents, and other supplies to distribute to those without housing, according to Good Samaritan co-executive director Rick DeAngelis.

“We’re already handing out stuff at Another Way in Montpelier,” DeAngelis said, “And we will be at … the Hilltop Inn (in Berlin), and there may be one or two more (drop-off sites).” Asked where people will be camping, DeAngelis declined to comment, saying “individuals do have a right to camp on public land.” He noted, however, that there are exceptions prohibiting camping near trails, or in Montpelier, which has an encampment policy, in Hubbard Park and other designated spots.

Hemmerick said he thinks camping “lets the state off the hook and will exacerbate inequities across the region.”

“Frankly,” Hemmerick added in an email to The Bridge, “it is a sad day in America and Vermont when tiny municipal governments must look to … informal settlement and slum management policies to do the unthinkable in the wealthiest nation on earth: sanction substandard encampments and living conditions.

“People are asking a lot of questions: where will people sleep, where will they urinate and defecate, where will they access a shower, where will they charge a phone or refill an oxygen tank, how will emergency responders be able to reach them, and how will municipalities manage impacts to our downtown merchants and residents? We don’t have answers yet, but lots of people are working on this, and the deadline is fast approaching.”

Quick: Create an Emergency Shelter

The Montpelier City Council has approved a $16,400 study to determine what needs to happen to get the Barre Street Recreation Center ready as an emergency winter shelter. It’s a tricky process because the plan is for the rec center to open for regular programming during the day and transform into a shelter at night. At that same meeting, council also passed a resolution to “commit to developing a plan with neighboring communities to provide resources within our capacity.”

Meanwhile, the possibility of using the Barre Auditorium as a shelter has been discussed – but hasn’t gained traction – at a Barre City Council meeting and at last week’s press conference. 

“There are a lot of things that would have to be addressed before we got to that point,” said Barre City Manager Nicolas Storellicastro. He said questions not yet answered include “Who is going to staff it? Who is going to secure it? How long will it be used?” Most importantly, he added, “Use of the Aud will also need to be part of a state/regional strategy.” 

One thing is clear: the existing shelters of the Good Samaritan Haven are not an option. All three of its sites are full. In 2021, the organization added a 15-bed residence in South Barre in addition to its longtime 20-bed Seminary Street building. Then in 2022, it added “The Good Sam Welcome Center” in Berlin with 18 rooms and 35 beds. Even with tripling capacity over the last two years, not a single bed is currently available.

Minter pointed to other indicators of a crisis: “The largest food shelf in central Vermont is in downtown Barre,” she said. “In the last quarter we had a 75% increase in people coming, and these are many instances of new people who have never been in need before.”

“If state government has one role, it should be that children aren’t sleeping in cars,” Casey said about why he voted against his party on the state budget. “If it does anything it should be that ventilators aren’t sitting outside buildings plugged into outlets. That’s what we’re looking at. I get that the program can’t continue forever, but you need a plan.”