In emergency tenting debate, Montpelier residents describe experiences sleeping tough

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Dawn Little, Montpelier City Council’s Homeless Service, speaks to the City Council on Wednesday. Photo by Erin Petenko / VTDigger

For people in Montpelier having accommodation, rainy days and wet weather may have canceled hiking plans or ruined outdoor concerts.

For homeless people who were forced to camp all day outdoors, the wet weather threatened to turn their belongings to “mush,” several said at a meeting of the city government’s homeless task force.

“There are a lot of people out there who don’t even have adequate shelter to store their belongings,” said a woman living outside who only identified herself as Susan. “And when they acquire things, they will be ruined when the elements hit. I’ve already given away clothes [and] Sleeping bags for people who were even more needy than me. “

The task force met on Wednesday, hours before a city council meeting, to discuss Montpelier’s proposed emergency camping policy.

The guideline created by Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer aims to decriminalize emergency camping on city-owned land and to give city employees clear instructions on how to deal with campers.

Politics comes amid concerns over the state’s housing crisis, fueled by a lack of affordable housing and the displacement of hundreds of people from motels across the country. In Montpelier, service employees estimate that in addition to the usual 50 people in the city, another 20 people could camp now or in the near future.

Niedermayer said a recent lawsuit in the 9th District, whose jurisdiction stretches from Alaska in the south to Arizona, suggests that the city government has a legal responsibility to allow camping when there is not enough accommodation available. And the local animal shelter, Good Samaritan Haven, doesn’t have enough beds.

“To be completely honest, there are people now camping in our public parks and there will continue to be people camping because of a lack of better or different options,” she said.

Councilor Conor Casey said he was alarmed by comments on the Front Porch Forum generalizing the population of the homeless leading up to the meeting.

“When we say ‘they’, in many cases it’s us,” he said. “I spoke to a colleague…. And I asked him about himself: ‘Where are you from’ and he said: ‘I went to Montpelier High School. I grew up here. … I’ve been through the mill, I’ve had a hard time, but … this is my community. This is my home.'”

But while some commentators at the Front Porch Forum argued against camping in Hubbard Park and elsewhere, no one at the meeting seemed to disagree with the underlying concept of allowing emergency camping on public land.

Instead, several members of the public said the guideline was insufficient and asked for additional resources and facilities to support people forced to live outdoors.

Jamie Swan, who said he has been homeless since 15, said the city should have a designated area. “You are afraid of getting into trouble. So they go everywhere and scattered everywhere. Personally, they make a big mess, ”he said.

Stephen Whitaker, a local resident, said the city should keep campers close to the city and provide them with public facilities, including simple “huts” to live in.

Niedermayer previously said the city’s applications for state funding for designated campsites have been rejected. Several people at the meeting said they hope Montpelier will continue to fight for government aid.

After several hours of discussion, the council decided to postpone the vote on the directive until the city parking commission had a chance to fully consider where people are allowed to camp.

The Council is taking preliminary steps on one frequently mentioned issue: the lack of public toilets. City councils appointed members of a newly formed public toilet committee.

Dawn Little, the city’s homeless worker, told VTDigger after the meeting that there is only one 24-hour public toilet in the city – at Cumberland Farms – and “you may have to walk across town” to get there reach.

But that’s just one example of the “incredible time and perseverance” it takes to meet basic outdoor needs, she said. “The people who are housed really underestimate that. It is true for each of those little unconscious needs that we meet every day without really thinking about it. “

“In addition to, ‘Oh, I have an appointment at 1pm,’ well, you might not have a phone, you might not know what time it is … you might miss the bus, but you, too, between those things … they all have those other things like getting food, going to the bathroom, getting warm, ”Little said.

People with chronic illnesses face an even greater challenge in meeting their basic needs, she said. At the meeting, she pointed out that the lack of public transport near public land means that people with disabilities are often forced to walk long distances.

In response to concerns about an increase in homelessness, state officials have put in place several programs – emergency grants, rental support, an expanded motel voucher system – to keep people from falling through the gaps.

But Little said that people often struggle to find their way around the services – they may not qualify for programs, hear from them, or apply to them without help, or they may not be able to use the help once they get it.

She said she knows people who have had a Section 8 voucher that provides rental assistance to low-income homes for a year but can’t find anyone to accept the voucher.

“There are a multitude of things that we traditionally have not funded for the people, and while they wait for that help to arrive, it can take a while, even if they are through all the tires,” she said. “It’s not like you just hold out your hand, we can get you accommodated right away and you can get a job and you’ll be fine. It’s just not that easy. “

Another Way, a community center in Montpelier for psychiatric survivors and the homeless. Photo by Erin Petenko / VTDigger

Another way

On Wednesday afternoon at Another Way, a local community center for psychiatric survivors and the homeless, several people chatted on plastic-covered couches and smoked cigarettes on the porch outside despite the drizzle.

The center, located at 125 Barre Street, has signs for its weekly programs – a woodworking workshop, yoga, battery wellness – and a large garden that grows apples.

A worker named Pat shared some of the frustrations she saw in seeking help.

She asked not to give her last name as her ex-husband the stalker was the reason she and her son were driven into homelessness. She has traveled from state to state looking for a job and a place to live.

After selecting Montpelier from a “dartboard”, domestic violence shelter provided permanent shelter for them. Your son is now a college graduate.

Another Way, a community center in Montpelier for psychiatric survivors and the homeless. Photo by Erin Petenko / VTDigger

Now she works with others on Another Way to give back to the community. She said some minor issues are often an obstacle for those in need of care, such as not having ID or not living in Vermont long enough.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to get out of homelessness, she said, is because “you’ve been so down for so long”.

“If I were homeless… the first thing I would want to say to you is, ‘I didn’t grow up that way. I didn’t wake up and want to be homeless. I was actually a member of my community. I was engaged, I was involved, ‘”she said.

Ken Russell, executive director of Another Way, said there would be a lot to learn if the general public just listened to the stories of people affected by homelessness.

“Often times, when you are caricatured as homeless, you are treated as a little less than human,” he said. “Many just pass by. There may be uncomfortable aspects of human nature that you encounter because people are under stress, but sometimes these are the noisy ones.

“I am always overwhelmed by the humanity of the people; how loving and caring the people in these caring communities treat each other. It is wonderful.”

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