By Lauren Milideo
With the end of the state’s expanded motel housing program already begun for Vermonters experiencing homelessness, solutions are not readily at hand. Local governments, social service organizations, and nonprofits serving current hotel guests are all searching for permanent ways to house those needing help. On June 7, the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force is hosting a discussion of one approach already underway a few exits up the interstate in Burlington: a community of “pod” homes for residents needing a place to live.
The meeting is one in an educational series meant to provide insight into the experiences of those living without housing, noted task force member Carolyn Ridpath. “What I try to do with the educational pieces is to start to break down some of those stereotypes and that resistance so that we will have a better chance of being able to have something available.”
Currently, about 300 people are living in hotels and motels in Washington County, said task force chair Ken Russell, who also directs the Montpelier nonprofit Another Way. That number will decrease sharply on July 1, when federal COVID-19 funds, which had been paying for a significant portion of the rooms, run out.
“The need is that we have a lot of people living outside and we’re about to have a whole bunch more,” Russell said. “Nobody knows the exact number, but there are going to be dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of people coming out onto the street.”
The presentation on June 7 will feature a discussion by representatives of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office about the Elmwood emergency shelter community in Burlington. The community consists of a series of “pods” — small structures providing housing for people experiencing homelessness. Hopefully, noted Ridpath, officials and organizations in Montpelier can learn from the experiences of the Elmwood community to make informed decisions about what might work in Montpelier.
“I have the feeling that people reading about the (Elmwood) community in the various newspapers and so forth come away with an impression that isn’t entirely favorable,” Ridpath noted. “And so it seemed better to have somebody actually say, ‘This is what we did, here are the problems we’ve encountered’ — because obviously they’ve had to encounter problems — ‘here’s how we’ve surmounted them, and here’s where we are today.’ And then the people in the Washington County area who attend will have an opportunity to say, okay, maybe this is something that will fit into our communities.”
The pods in Burlington were made by Pallet, and, noted Ridpath, have many features that residents appreciate: they’re heated and air-conditioned, with electricity and a bed. The inside of each unit can be power-washed between occupants. Most importantly, Ridpath said, the units provide privacy and safety within 64 square feet, with a locking door.
There is no specific plan or proposal at this time to create a pod community, Russell noted. “It’s something to explore as a community — it’s just, to pull it off requires certain things to be in place.”
Russell pointed out that such a community would require multiple logistical considerations, such as a site, an organizational operator, and money, none of which are currently established. “It would be great if there were an operator who said, ‘Okay, we’re going to take this piece of land, build this community, we’re going to do it with these funds, with this approach,’” Russell said. “Thus far, that hasn’t happened, and part of the reality of doing this work is figuring out what actually works.”
As local officials and communities scramble to help homeless residents find needed resources, Ridpath sees the pods as a good possibility to meet some of these needs.
“I get the impression that compared to most options, that these are considered desirable by people who live in them,” Ridpath said, “that they appreciate them for what they are, which is it’s a simple place you can call your own, and it’s safe. That’s crucial. It’s safe.”
The meeting will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on June 7 at the Hubbard-Kellogg Library in Montpelier. It will be available on ORCA media and can also be viewed at orcamedia.net/show/building-emergency-shelter-community-address-homelessness-live .