In emergency camping debate, Montpellier residents describe street sleep experiences

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Dawn Little, the Montpellier city government homeless worker, addressed city council on Wednesday. Photo by Erin Petenko / VTDigger

For Montpellier residents who have accommodation, rainy and rainy days may have canceled hiking plans or ruined outdoor concerts.

For homeless people, forced to camp outside full time, the wet weather threatened to turn their life’s possessions into “mush,” several said at a meeting of the Homeless Task Force. of the city government.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have adequate shelter to store their things,” said a woman living outside who identified herself only as Susan. “And so when they acquire things, they are ruined when the elements strike. I have already donated clothes [and] sleeping bags for people who needed them even more than me.

The working group met on Wednesday, a few hours before a city council meeting to discuss the emergency camping policy proposed by Montpellier.

The policy, prepared by Deputy City Manager Cameron Niedermayer, aims to decriminalize emergency camping on city-owned land and give clear instructions to city staff on how to navigate interactions with residents. campers.

The policy comes amid concerns about the state’s housing crisis, caused by a shortage of affordable housing and the eviction of hundreds of people from motels statewide. In Montpellier, service workers estimate that an additional 20 people on top of the city’s usual 50 could be camping right now or in the near future.

Niedermayer said a recent court case in the 9th District Circuit, whose jurisdiction stretches from southern Alaska to Arizona, suggests that the city government has a legal responsibility to allow camping when there are not enough shelters available. And the local shelter, Good Samaritan Haven, doesn’t have enough beds.

“To be very frank, there are people camping now in our public parks, and there will be more who will camp because there is a lack of better or other options,” she said.

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

“When we say ‘them’, in many cases it’s us,” he said. “I was talking to a guy…. And I asked him about himself, ‘where are you from’, and he said, ‘I went to high school in Montpellier. I grew up here. … I walked through the mill, I had a hard time but… this is my community. It’s my house.'”

But while some Front Porch Forum commentators objected to camping at Hubbard Park and other locations, no one at the meeting seemed to disagree with the underlying concept of allowing emergency camping on the public lands.

Instead, several members of the public said the policy was not enough and called for additional resources and facilities to support those forced to live outside.

Jamie Swan, who said he has been homeless for 15 years, said the city should have a designated area. “They are afraid of getting into trouble. So they go everywhere and disperse 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 basic “cabins” in which they could live.

Niedermayer has previously said that requests for city state funding for designated camping areas have been denied. Several people present at the meeting said they hope Montpellier will continue to fight for state aid.

After several hours of discussion, council decided to postpone voting on the policy until the city’s parks commission had a chance to fully vote on where people would be allowed to camp.

The council is taking interim action on a frequently mentioned problem: the lack of public toilets. Councilors have appointed members of a new public restroom committee.

Dawn Little, the town’s homeless outreach worker, told VTDigger after the meeting that there was only one 24-hour public washroom in town – at Cumberland Farms – and “you you may have to cross town ‘to get there.

But that was just one example of the “incredible time and endurance” required to meet basic needs when living outdoors, she said. “People who are housed really underestimate this. This is true for any of those little unconscious needs that we encounter every day without really thinking about it.

“Besides ‘Oh I have a one o’clock meeting’, well you might not have a phone, you might not know what time it is… you might miss the bus. , but you also between these things. … They have all of these other things like getting food, going to the bathroom, getting warm, ”Little said.

People with chronic illnesses face an even more difficult challenge in meeting their basic needs, she said. During the meeting, she pointed out that the lack of public transport near public grounds means that campers with disabilities are often forced to walk long distances.

In response to concerns about increasing homelessness, state officials have implemented several programs – emergency allowances, rent assistance, an extensive motel voucher system – to help prevent people from passing through. through the gaps.

But Little said people often have a hard time navigating services – they may not qualify for programs, or hear about them, or cannot apply without assistance, or cannot use the assistance one. once they got it.

She said she has known people who have held Section 8 vouchers, who provide low-rental housing rental assistance, for a year, but cannot find anyone to accept the voucher.

“There are a lot of things that we have not traditionally funded for people and, while they are waiting for this help to arrive, even if they have cleared all the obstacles, it may take a while,” she declared. “It’s not like you’re just reaching out, we can put you up right away and you can find a job and you’ll be fine. It just isn’t that simple.

Another Way, a community center in Montpellier for psychiatric survivors and people experiencing homelessness. Photo by Erin Petenko / VTDigger

Other

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

The center, located at 125 rue Barre, has signs for its weekly programs – a carpentry workshop, yoga, accu-wellness – and a large apple-growing garden at the back.

A worker named Pat shared some of the frustrations she noticed while seeking help.

She asked not to share her last name because her stalker ex-husband was the reason she and her son ended up homeless. She traveled from state to state, looking for a job and a place to live.

After choosing Montpellier from a “darts target,” a domestic violence shelter provided them with permanent accommodation. Her son is now a college graduate.

Another Way, a community center in Montpellier for psychiatric survivors and people experiencing homelessness. Photo by Erin Petenko / VTDigger

Now she works with others at Another Way to give back to the community. She said some minor issues are often a barrier for people seeking care, such as not having ID or not living in Vermont long enough.

She said that one of the reasons it’s so hard to get out of homelessness is “you’ve been so downcast for so long.”

“If I were homeless… the first thing I would do is explain to you, ‘I didn’t grow up like this. I haven’t woken 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 homeless people.

“If you are caricatured as homeless, you are often treated as something less than human,” he said. “A lot of people miss it. There may be some uncomfortable aspects of human nature that you come across as people are stressed out, but sometimes those are the loud ones.

“I am blown away over and over again by the humanity of the people; how loving and caring people are for each other in these communities of care. It’s nice.”


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