by Mhairi Paget
MONTPELIER — Homelessness is a persistent and largely hidden problem in Montpelier and Washington County as a whole. This was evident during a meeting held on May 16 at Christ Church hosted by the City of Montpelier Housing Task Force and the Good Samaritan Haven of Barre. The goals of the meeting, billed as a “Community Conversation,” were to frame the problem, describe individual experiences with homelessness, outline efforts currently underway to assist homeless persons and brainstorm ways to address the ongoing challenges.
During the first portion of the meeting — which was preceded by a dinner for all the participants — officials with various local organizations and government entities described the extent and character of homelessness as experienced in their work. According to Liz Genge, co-chair of the Washington County Continuum of Care, the annual count of the homeless on January 26 this year found 117 people homeless within Washington County. Of those, there were 17 children, 18 adults fleeing domestic violence, 25 veterans, 8 unaccompanied minors, 42 people with mental health issues, and 36 persons suffering from chronic substance abuse. These numbers don’t include people, often teenagers and young adults, who were couch-surfing.
Brooke Jenkins, executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, which is the only homeless shelter in Central Vermont, told the group that the 30 beds in the shelter are full every night, as are the 14 seasonal overflow beds in winter. Montpelier Mayor John Hollar outlined issues specific to Montpelier, including transients, couch-surfers and folks who camp in the area behind Agway and in Hubbard Park. Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos said that his major concern is the safety of “kids living on the edge” — those who have run away or have been kicked out of their homes. Tom McKone, executive director of the Kellogg Hubbard Library, noted that there are homeless guests in the library every day and that, while the staff very rarely experience behavioral issues, he has health and safety concerns, particularly adverse substance abuse reactions.
Next to speak were several people who are currently or who have been homeless. One young woman spoke of being homeless for two years after she ran from “random violence” in her home. Later, once again homeless, she and her two children camped out for four months on land belonging to a friend. A man spoke of being homeless, off and on, for 25 years, mostly in Montpelier. He said that the homeless “deserve honor and respect and a place to live.” Another man described 12 years of living without stable housing. He said that while there are resources available, what is needed are individualized plans using “practical, workable solutions.” He added, “The only lost causes are ones given up on.”
During the third section of the meeting, representatives from many groups that serve the homeless population described programs in place to support the populations they serve. The Reverend Auburn Watersong, who serves as the Associate Priest of Christ Church, is also an Economic Justice Specialist with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. She said that people, women in particular, are making a choice between being housed or living with violence — that 40 percent of domestic violence victims stay because they simply have no other choice.
Dawn Butterfield from Capstone Community Action told the audience that in the last nine months her organization has served 114 households comprising 224 people, including 78 children. A representative from the Washington County Youth Service Bureau, which works with youth aged 16 to 21 who are either at risk of homelessness or actually homeless, described services including two new emergency housing units (for up to 90 days); a transitional apartment that can be used for up to 18 months; and rental assistance vouchers, but added that they only have funding for 19 percent of the youth on the waiting list. Eileen Peltier, executive director of Downstreet Housing, mentioned the 27 new affordable units in Barre, which will add to the 500 available units in Washington County and the discussed possibility of 18 new units in the French Block to supplement the 150 units in Montpelier.
Other programs include RISE Men’s Supported Living Program serving men in recovery from substance abuse; Another Way, a daytime drop-in location on Barre Street in Montpelier which has resources such as computers, a community kitchen, art and exercise spaces, and garden beds; Washington County Mental Health, 50 percent of whose clients are either homeless or have experienced homelessness; and the weekday lunchtime soup kitchens sponsored by Montpelier churches that serve 75 to 150 people a day.
Many of these groups offer overlapping services and support overlapping populations. In an effort to streamline the process, the Central Vermont Continuum of Care has created a Permission and Release of Information form through which a client gives permission to have his or her case discussed by the Continuum of Care team to determine which services are most needed and which organization can best provide those services.
Finally, according to a representative from Vermont Interfaith Action, a solution to housing the homeless requires a three-pronged approach: create more housing; provide subsidies to make existing units affordable; and provide support once a person is housed. Vermont Interfaith Action is sponsoring a “Housing First 101” workshop June 4 at the Old Labor Hall in Barre to describe the Housing First model, which has been successful in other parts of the country, and to outline ways in which interested people can become engaged in solving the problem.