Despite nearly two dozen signatures on a petition against using Montpelier’s Barre Street Recreation Center as a homeless shelter, only two neighbors – and none of the seniors – attended a meeting to discuss the matter. Ron Merkin, a resident of the senior housing apartments located in the same building as the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, held the meeting and created the petition to protest the city’s potential use of the recreation center on Barre Street as an emergency shelter. Merkin said the seniors who live across the street from the Rec Center were left out of the planning.
It’s not that the seniors don’t want a shelter: what they want is to maintain their own feelings of safety, Merkin said. In asking for signatures for the petition, Merkin said he sometimes “felt guilty about what the homeless people are going to do and so forth,” but the petition is protesting the choice of the recreation center building specifically. “Where do you think the homeless will wait until they can get into the Rec Center? The parklet in front of the Senior Center.”
Merkin organized a meeting at the senior center on Wednesday, June 28, to spread awareness to the neighborhood. Including Merkin and a reporter, four people attended. Merkin brought his petition, which featured 22 signatures from senior residents in the area, protesting the use of the center. He said he hopes to get at least 30, or even 40 signatures, to make an impression on the Montpelier City Council. He initially had trouble finding people to sign the petition he said, but once he got a few signatures, more followed.
Although Vermont has long-term goals of creating subsidized housing, hundreds of people are facing an immediate struggle to find a place to stay as the pandemic-era state-funded housing at motels and hotels is ending. As part of an effort to provide shelter and services for people experiencing housing instability, the city of Montpelier is considering the use of the recreation center, along with other buildings.
Parker Advisors, a local consulting firm, published an assessment and action plan review for the city of Montpelier, which identified the Rec Center as a potential “temporary shelter in inclement weather” and a “base for the city-supported street outreach workers.” If funding allows for it in the future, Park Advisors recommended to “build over time a one stop location that will increase access to services and provide a focal point for Montpelier’s efforts at addressing homelessness.”
Although the recreation center requires renovation before it can become a shelter, it is large and has bathrooms and a shower. Currently, the city of Montpelier has commissioned a feasibility study, and the plans to use the center as a shelter are still in the works.
Parker Advisors recommends the recreation center because it is close to Montpelier’s commercial areas, a cluster of service providers, and affordable housing, also saying it would have a dual use until “recreation function is relocated to the Country Club Road location.”
Merkin noticed that Parker Advisors had not consulted citizens near the recreation center, and said — because of the proximity of the building and previous incidents — that he would like to give voice to local residents.
“There’s been no effort at all by the politicians or by the organization that recommended the Rec Center to come over here, and talk with us at least, and see what we’re feeling about it,” said Merkin. Referring to the parklet located in front of Montpelier Senior Activity Center, Merkin said “In the past we’ve had problems. Some serious problems at times with homeless people sleeping there, and leaving junk all over the place, and smoking.” He added: “It’s in the past, but we’d like to keep it that way.”
“There’s so much fear upstairs,” says Merkin, referring to the seniors’ apartments. “There’s one guy who’s wheelchair bound, and there’s three who use walkers, and all of them, almost all of them, have had serious surgery over the last couple of years.” The Parker Advisor’s review made an assumption that seniors might be willing to volunteer at the potential shelter.
There have been a few past incidents of violence against volunteer workers at shelters, which many senior residents are aware of. However, the seniors aren’t necessarily being avoidant. “Again, even since then, there have been one or two young men sleeping out front and I didn’t make a fuss of it at all. […] Even us old people who are concerned are human,” said Merkin.
The senior center residents have legitimate reason to feel concerned, commented Rick DeAngelis when asked about the meeting. DeAngelis is co-executive director of Good Samaritan Haven. People going through the trauma of being unhoused, as well as shelter operators, are looking for a safe and secure environment, he said. Referring to past incidents of violence, DeAngelis said it would be a mistake to highlight people in poverty, compared to what happens around the world.
Emery Zimet (who is related to the author of this article) and Matthew Signer, who attended the meeting and are residents of the area surrounding the Rec Center, both declined to sign Merkin’s petition. “I don’t want to sign that. I think that I agree it may not be the best option, but I don’t want there to be no options,” said Signer. They were less concerned about the effects on the neighborhood, because there are already occasional loud cars, music, and people smoking, typical of a downtown street.
During the meeting, Zimet mentioned that this chance to receive federal ARPA funding may be a great opportunity for the recreation center. “Wouldn’t they have to do that anyway?” Zimet said about renovating the leaky roof, removal of asbestos, and accessibility issues.
“Given the tight timeline and the need to move quickly, we ruled out the possibility of new construction,” says the Parker Advisor’s review about the need to provide shelter and services in a welcoming environment.
Another group that would be affected by the recreation center’s use as a shelter are children and teenagers in the after-school programs hosted there, which was pointed out by Merkin. With his petition, Merkin said he hopes members of the city council “could somehow use our information to bring to their project.”
Senior center residents, people experiencing housing instability, and those who will operate the shelter share the goal of safety and security, DeAngelis said, adding “their interests are identical.”