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Nobody Stayed at State Emergency Shelter; Homeless Advocates Scramble to Extend Motel Stays

The state of Vermont’s short-term transitional shelter, an Agency of Natural Resources annex building on Junction Road in Berlin. Photo by Jack McCullough.
Sixty people in Washington County were potentially without a place to sleep last week, when the state ended eligibility for many sheltered through Vermont’s general assistance emergency housing program, which provides motel rooms for those without homes through the winter. 

But changing rules for the program and some last-minute scrambling on the part of homeless advocates meant that nobody ended up on the street, and a “short-term transitional shelter” at 190 Junction Road in Berlin ended up not being used, according to Rick DeAngelis, co-director of Good Samaritan Haven.

The Emergency Shelter

On Wednesday, March 13, DeAngelis said, he learned the state had set up four emergency shelters around Vermont, one of which would be in Berlin. That same day, he was told of a new rule based on legislation meant to keep some people in the motels a bit longer, but that required a form for each applicant be filled out and submitted by that Friday. Both notifications came two days before the program was slated to end for some 500 Vermonters on Friday, March 15.

“All of us thought (the emergency shelter) was going to be at the armory in Berlin, near the Toyota dealership. We thought that was bad, but we didn’t know what bad was,” DeAngelis said. As it turned out, the shelter would be at the Agency of Natural Resources annex building in Berlin, just across the Dog River from the Montpelier border, near the Amtrak station. Out-of-the-way, and a poorly lit, long walk from downtown with no bus service, the building choice outraged local residents. On the outside, the annex appears to be an old warehouse, although it holds an office space with spacious bathrooms in one part of the building.  

Mayor Jack McCullough posted a picture of the building on his Facebook page on March 13 with the caption:

“This is the temporary “shelter” the State of Vermont is offering to accommodate unhoused community members in Central Vermont.

“Nowhere near anything, no transportation, and I couldn’t see any preparations happening when I was there a few minutes ago.”

The shelter would open at 7 p.m. — eight hours after folks would have to leave motel rooms — and stay open until 7 a.m., when people would have to be gone along with their belongings, according to a press release from the state. DeAngelis said his staff at Good Samaritan Haven were expected by the state to show up on the premises at 6:30 a.m., on a Saturday.

“It’s a facilities managers’ solution, not a human services one,” DeAngelis said in a text to The Bridge.

Thanks to a new rule and a lot of work by homeless advocates, nobody ended up staying at the makeshift shelter, although it was staffed by a member of the National Guard, DeAngelis said.

The New Rule

A new rule announced last week expands the definition of “disability” — one of the criteria that allows some motel guests to stay longer than others, DeAngelis said. He explained that “Normally … you’ve got to have a measurable documented disability.” Under the new rule, if the person filled out a form declaring a “disability variance,” and the form is signed “by a credentialed clinician of some sort,” the person could qualify for an extension.

“It was not very explicit, with hardly any directions at all, a real last-minute notification, with very little guidance,” DeAngelis said. “… we were told, ‘don’t promote this too much because we don’t have enough money to put people in motels.” He also said the rule came with good intentions — to keep people sheltered as long as possible — but was poorly executed.

Staff and volunteers from the People’s Health & Wellness Clinic visited the Hilltop Inn to get the “medical exclusion” forms filled out, along with Good Samaritan Haven staff, Ken Russell, executive director of Another Way, Beth Ann Maier of Christ Episcopal Church in Montpelier, and Peter Thoms of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Montpelier. The group split up among several remaining hotels, including the Quality Inn in Barre and the Economy Inn in Montpelier.

“We found out Wednesday morning … They gave us the medical exclusion form and there was kind of a mad scramble to find enough volunteers with two and a half day’s notice … to do medical evaluations with folks living up (at the Hilltop),” said Dan Barlow, executive director of the People’s Health & Wellness Clinic. “We had a team of medical staff there Thursday and we were submitting stuff right up to the deadline of 5 p.m. Friday. We wished we had more notice.”

People’s Health & Wellness offers monthly free clinics at the Hilltop, Barlow said.

DeAngelis said “close to half of the total number” of those slated to exit the motels on Friday were able to stay in their rooms at least another week. Others found their own solutions; some left the area and two people found beds in the Good Samaritan shelters.