State to Open Temporary Homeless Shelter in Downtown Burlington | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


State to Open Temporary Homeless Shelter in Downtown Burlington


Published March 14, 2024 at 8:14 p.m.

  • File: Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • 108 Cherry Street
The state will open an emergency shelter in downtown Burlington on Friday to temporarily house 100 people who will no longer be eligible for the homeless motel program.

Similar shelters will also open in Berlin, Rutland and somewhere in southern Vermont and will operate for four to seven days, state officials said on Thursday during a virtual meeting with Burlington city leaders and downtown business owners. The stays will provide people leaving the motel program "time ... to find alternative housing or shelter if they've not already done that," said Chris Winters, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.

"It will also allow the state, municipalities and community partners some additional time — that four to seven days — to assess their needs and hopefully connect those individuals with services or longer-term solutions," Winters said.

Burlington's shelter will be at the former state office building at 108 Cherry Street, just off the Church Street Marketplace.

Queen City officials only heard about the plan on Tuesday evening, leaving little time to plan for an influx of people who will likely struggle to find other housing once the shelter closes in a week or less.

“I will say I’m shocked at how quickly this is happening,” Mayor Miro Weinberger said during Thursday's virtual meeting. “It seems completely avoidable to me and really wrong that Vermont’s cities, shelter guests, schools, businesses are really being given hours to react to the state standing up, really, a whole new program.”
The shelter setup coincides with the end of the state’s “adverse weather” motel program on Friday, March 15. While some of the most vulnerable people can stay in motels through June 30, about 500 others will have to reapply on a nightly basis based on weather conditions.

About 100 of those people are in the Burlington area, Winters said on Thursday. Nearly as many business leaders and social service workers tuned in to the virtual meeting to hear about the plan.

The Burlington shelter will be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., beginning on Friday. It will be staffed by medical professionals, a security team and members of the Vermont National Guard. Guests won't have private rooms or a place to store their belongings during the day.

Beginning on Saturday morning, the state has asked service providers to visit the shelter to help people find more permanent housing and seek medical, substance-use and mental health services, Winters said.

Weinberger urged the state to delay the opening of the shelter and continue the motel program through Sunday night, after the St. Patrick’s Day weekend. He also asked the state to change the shelter’s hours of operation, in part to avoid conflicts with students arriving at Burlington High School, which is just down the street.

"Let's be really clear: This is the state's plan," Weinberger said. "It is the governor's plan to implement, and they must ensure the basic needs of shelter guests are met, that the facility is safe for guests and the public alike, and that Burlington's nearby high school and Church Street Marketplace, two of the most important institutions in this town, are not negatively impacted by shelter operations."

The mayor was also skeptical that people will be able to find housing in such a short time frame. Dozens of people could end up on the street, Weinberger said, just as they did when some residents in the motel program were kicked out last June. At the time, Weinberger asked for state funding to open a low-barrier shelter at 108 Cherry Street. Officials denied his request.
“We all know that the Burlington downtown really struggled, and dozens of individuals in this community really struggled, through the rest of the summer after that June 1 decision to end the program,” Weinberger said. “If this shelter and the shelters around the state are full or close to full and they are closed a week from now, that would be repeating this terrible mistake.”

Rutland Mayor Mike Doenges took to social media to vent similar frustrations with the state’s plan to shelter as many as 100 people in the four-story Asa Bloomer building downtown. The site was “not suitable for our community,” he wrote, but the state “asserted its right” to use the building as a shelter.

Doenges proposed other solutions, but “it became evident that we were once again in the position of reacting to the State’s lack of planning and direction in this matter,” he said.

In a written statement on Thursday, House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) scolded the Scott administration for not communicating with city officials. “Lives are at risk and communities are completely in the dark,” she wrote. “This has to stop.”

Rep. Theresa Wood (D-Waterbury) said lawmakers included money in the budget that would have allowed most people to stay in the motel program through June.

“We crafted language that was extremely clear about the legislative intent,” she said. “What’s happening now appears to us to be in direct disregard to legislative intent.”

At the Burlington town hall, several business owners expressed concern about the hastily conceived plan. Real estate broker Jeff Nick, who owns a building next to the proposed shelter, worried about increasing crime on the Church Street Marketplace and asked the city for more robust police patrols. “We’re going to need it,” he said.

Winters, the DCF commissioner, cautioned people not to assume that every unhoused person is a criminal.

“The folks who are going to be here, they are complicated individuals,” he said. “These are people who are a lot like you and me.”

Tito Bern, owner of the Bern Gallery and cannabis shop on Main Street, lamented that the state has spent millions of dollars on motel rooms when it could have built more shelters.

“Wow,” he said. “What a mess.”

Kevin McCallum contributed reporting.

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