Vermont Scrambles to Open Five Facilities for Homeless Residents by April 1 | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Scrambles to Open Five Facilities for Homeless Residents by April 1


Published February 7, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

DCF Commissioner Chris Winters addressing Waterbury residents - FILE: GORDON MILLER
  • File: Gordon Miller
  • DCF Commissioner Chris Winters addressing Waterbury residents

Chris Winters faced a torrent of tough questions last month about a temporary homeless shelter the state hopes to set up in an empty Vermont National Guard armory in Waterbury.

The commissioner of the Department for Children and Families sought to reassure anxious town residents that the proposed shelter, which would accommodate 40 to 50 adults, would be safe and well run. The current plan is to operate it from April 1 to June 30.

"There is no intention to use this as a shelter after the three months," Winters told the standing-room-only crowd of about 100 during a January 22 meeting at the Waterbury fire station.

The audience — which included another 100 people following online — was skeptical.

"Temporary becomes permanent real easy," resident Steve Frappier told Winters. He asked: Would Winters pledge not to extend the shelter past June 30 if the undertaking became "an epic failure" and the town wanted it gone?

"I want to be careful because I don't want to make any promises I can't keep," Winters replied.

The administration of Gov. Phil Scott has proposed setting up a network of emergency shelters to serve people lodged in the hotel program that is to end on April 1. Scott has long sought to end the pandemic-era program, which moved people out of homeless shelters and into motel rooms, and is especially adamant now that the federal government is no longer footing the bill. An estimated 1,600 households with 2,500 people remain in the hotels.

But during a housing crisis, it will take years to construct enough affordable housing units to meet the needs of the motel residents. With no solution in sight for unhoused Vermonters, potential host communities worry that shelters such as this one, proposed for an isolated four-acre site beside Interstate 89 in Waterbury, would become a dead end for those who live there. The reception could signal trouble for the administration's plans for four other sites, in Brattleboro, Bennington, Burlington and Rutland.

"The state doesn't have a real good track record when they say something is temporary," Rep. Theresa Wood (D-Waterbury) told the crowd, adding that the plan "makes zero sense."

The administration intends to buy the armory building from the National Guard for an estimated $890,000. The state would update fire sprinklers, bathrooms and kitchen facilities, and would pay a contractor to operate the shelter.

Residents at the meeting - FILE: GORDON MILLER
  • File: Gordon Miller
  • Residents at the meeting

The plan stirred opposition even from those who say they support more housing for the homeless. Selectboard member Kane Sweeney said he wants the town to build more affordable housing. But the short timeline for getting the converted armory open and operating shows the plan was thrown together in haste, he said.

"Eleventh-hour throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing if it sticks isn't really how you should handle a housing crisis," Sweeney told Seven Days after the meeting.

Some residents reminded their neighbors of the town's history as home to a former state psychiatric hospital and urged compassion.

"These are our people. These are our brothers and sisters," Beth Ann Maier said.

Sweeney, a chef at a local restaurant, said he himself has endured periods of couch surfing during employment struggles over the years and supports expanding the shelter system. But he said he was struck by how Winters justified the shelter plan by characterizing the motels as places no one should have to live. "So your alternative is a congregate shelter in a military gymnasium?" he said.

Many residents were appalled to hear that the town doesn't have much say in the matter. Municipal manager Tom Leitz told Seven Days that because the footprint and exterior of the building wouldn't be altered, the only issues the local Development Review Board could address are traffic, parking, noise and landscaping.

"If their goal is to get this up and running by April 1, it doesn't strike me as an impossible hurdle to clear," he said.

The armory proposal came together quickly after an effort to establish a new shelter in Montpelier recently fell through, Winters acknowledged. His staff had been working with Good Samaritan Haven, a Barre-based nonprofit, to lease the Econo Lodge and was optimistic that the organization could run it as an emergency shelter.

Rick DeAngelis, the group's co-executive director, said the state asked Good Samaritan to run a 40-room shelter for six months for the most vulnerable residents who are scheduled to leave motels. The organization's board worried about Good Samaritan's ability to staff the facility, as well as what would happen to residents after six months, DeAngelis said. The board decided on January 18 not to pursue the state's invitation.

That's when the Scott administration shifted its focus to the Waterbury armory. A week later, Winters pitched the idea to the Senate Appropriations Committee — the first public airing of the proposal, though the Waterbury Selectboard had gotten a sneak peek at the plan three days earlier.

The armory building - FILE: GORDON MILLER
  • File: Gordon Miller
  • The armory building

The National Guard needs to sell the building so that it can move forward on a new armory in Franklin County. Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) called the opportunity to help the Guard unload its old building while expanding the state's limited shelter capacity "a nice convergence."

"The dilemma here is to bring on more capacity until we get more permanent housing developed," Kitchel said

Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Orleans) seemed dubious. The cost of buying and upgrading the building and running it as a shelter likely would exceed what the state was paying per night for the motels, he noted.

Of the five communities under consideration, Brattleboro has the most momentum, Winters told Seven Days this week.

The state is close to signing a 12-month deal with the nonprofit Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development to add beds for approximately 20 families at the former campus of the Austine School for the Deaf. That's estimated to cost $940,000.

It's also negotiating with other service providers and is considering establishing sites with movable housing units similar to the pods used at the shelter in Burlington's Old North End, managed by Champlain Housing Trust.

One idea is to pay a provider to set up trailers and staff up to three sites. Leasing trailers for up to 46 people would cost more than $1 million per site for three months, Winters said. Another option is for the state to buy the units outright, he said.

Homeless housing providers privately expressed skepticism that the state would be able to create more than a few dozen additional beds by April 1, which would put people at risk of having nowhere to go when the motels evict them.

Vermont has struggled to balance the needs of its unhoused residents with the costs of putting them up. The state is paying an average of $132 per night, or $48,000 annually, for each motel room, though it has recently begun informing motels of plans to pay lower rates. The state is on track to spend about $60 million to house people in motels this year.

"Until we change the dynamic with the hotels and until we reduce our reliance on them, we're going to have a really hard time negotiating. We're going to have a really hard time controlling spending or making significant gains in additional shelter space," Winters told House members last week.

Reducing the room rate is also a key goal of lawmakers. The House supports a $75-per-night cap on the program beginning in March and extending the program for all participants through June 30. It's not clear whether the Senate will go along.

The state has already asked motel owners whether they're willing to accept the $75 rate after March 1. Some have agreed. Others haven't.

"It's kind of a stare-down at this point," Winters said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Helter-Shelters | Vermont scrambles to open five facilities for homeless residents by April 1"

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