Home Commentary Montpelier Should Not Put a Homeless Shelter at the Rec Center

Montpelier Should Not Put a Homeless Shelter at the Rec Center

Photo by Avi Zimet.
By David Kidney

Although Montpelier needs a shelter for people experiencing homelessness, the recreation center is not the place to put it. 

I have spent 40 years working as a public defender in Washington County. I have represented countless people who are unhoused. For too many of my clients, being unhoused is a harsh reality. So I am a huge proponent of tackling the problem of homelessness and commend the City Council for doing its best to address this issue. But I feel strongly that including the rec building in this discussion is a terrible mistake. 

For many kids, the rec center is a haven, a prosocial space that has kept many a child out of trouble. This will be jeopardized if we turn the rec center into a shelter. According to an article in the Dec. 5, 2023 issue of The Bridge, Good Samaritan Haven co-executive director Rick DeAngelis also has expressed concerns about the “dual use” of the building. As reported in The Bridge: 

While calling the rec center a “great location” for a shelter, DeAngelis also shared concerns about operating it while recreation programs are still occurring in the building. 

“One concern we have is the dual use, particularly if young people are there during the day,” he said. “It is one thing if you just have people sleeping there at night in the winter and then they are gone. It is another if you have a year-round facility. Even if people are leaving during the day, they probably will be congregating nearby to some degree. So, we have to look at that very, very carefully.” 

If we heed DeAngelis’ advice and look at dual use “very, very, carefully,” we will conclude such use of the rec center is inappropriate. The folks who stay there and their friends will congregate near and around the building. While most of them are fine people who happen to be down on their luck, there are unhoused people with significant substance abuse and mental health issues. With drug usage comes abandoned drug paraphernalia. Do we want to expose children to this as they come into and out of the rec center? 

In a recent article in The Bridge, Police Chief Eric Nordenson was interviewed. He addressed homelessness. He stated there is “a lot of substance abuse and mental health issues,” and “high-need people that don’t necessarily fit into the services that are offered currently.” Discussing violence on the bike path, the chief stated, “It’s important to have some awareness when you’re on the bike path. You go to any city that has a transit center, which is a typical hub for people experiencing homelessness who have no other place to go. Our transit center happens to be on our bike path… . You need to be aware of your surroundings. We have increased our foot patrol and presence in and around the bike path, especially before school and after school.” 

The chief concluded that the “influx of people from different places — it becomes pretty daunting.” 

If it is “daunting” for the police, it will be even more “daunting” for the children trying to use a dual-use rec center. If the police need “increased foot patrol and presence in and around the bike path especially before and after school,” dual use of the rec center will necessitate the same. 

We only have one rec center. It is old, small, and in need of repairs. But it is all we have, and somehow it manages to serve our children well. This will not be the case if we turn the rec center into a shelter. There must be a better way to serve our children and to address the needs of the unhoused. Maybe Montpelier gets the state to donate 110 State Street, which it is looking to sell, to the city for a shelter. Maybe we use the entire Elks Club building, rather than just a portion of it, to accommodate significantly more than the 15 people who are now provided shelter there. I am not sure what the answer is, but I know it is not the rec building. 

As for the rec center, if we are going to spend money on fixing up the basement, why not put in a workout room with exercise equipment, or a great game room with pool tables and ping pong. Or if we want dual use, why not a much needed childcare center. This would be a compatible dual usage. What is not compatible is a shelter. We can serve the interests of our children and those experiencing homelessness by finding a location for a shelter at some place other than the rec center. 

David Kidney is a local lawyer and long time Montpelier resident.

The material presented here represents the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of The Bridge. Commentaries may be submitted to editor@montpelierbridge.com. Preference is given to submissions by those who live in central Vermont. Submissions are encouraged to be 500 to 750 words in length.