MONTPELIER — The City Council will be asked to review recommendations for a task force to address the issue of homelessness in the Capital City at a meeting at City Hall tonight (Wednesday), at 6:30 p.m.
Last month, the council rejected a call for a “no loitering” ordinance to move the homeless and itinerant population off downtown streets. Instead, the council called for the formation of a task force to address the issues of the homeless and services that could be provided to alleviate their plight.
The issue followed complaints by local landlord David Kelley and other local business owners about sidewalks and business entrances being blocked, aggressive panhandling, cigarette smoke wafting into businesses, public intoxication and drug dealing.
But Kelley’s request for a no loitering ordinance was dismissed by the council as legally unenforceable unless laws were being broken, after consulting with the Montpelier Police Department.
Instead, several local people and city representatives spoke in favor of efforts to support the homeless population and the council agreed to establish a task force to address the conflict in the city.
In a memorandum to the council, City Manager Bill Fraser acknowledged the problems on city streets.
“There is some conflict that exists between merchants, shoppers and those who choose to sit on the sidewalks and ask for money,” said Fraser’s memo. Additionally, there are sanitation concerns, as well as a lack of facilities for people to use.”
However, Fraser noted that while there are homeless people who desire social services and need assistance in navigating social services, there are some in the homeless and itinerant population who had voluntarily chosen to live “a certain lifestyle” outdoors and on city streets and were not seeking assistance.
For those that did seek assistance, Fraser suggested steps the city could take might include providing public restrooms or a social worker in the Police Department. The city could also develop a plan for more homeless shelters, transitional housing or other appropriate services, he added.
At last month’s council meeting, Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos said officers routinely hand out A Survivor’s Guide, with contact information for a wide range of services, including referrals to housing programs, published by Washington County Mental Health Services that is widely distributed to the homeless.
Facos said the police are sensitive to the difficulties of the homeless population, could not violate their civil rights and could only make arrests if laws were broken.
In his memo, Fraser noted that the local government and the task force “will not be able to alleviate all root causes of homelessness or vagrancy.”
“Nor will they be able to provide direct services in areas like mental health, domestic violence, substance abuse, poverty and other contributing factors,” Fraser said. “They can, however, consider ways to make such support services more accessible to those who seek it.”
Steps Fraser suggested the council and the city could take included providing temporary restrooms for about $220 a month, or possible permanent installations, and help developing an inventory of available bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities.
The task force could also recommend providing a single-site drop-in center, with access to information about services available to the homeless and research how much it would cost to fund a social worker. The task force could also contact officials in neighboring towns and work together to plan coordinated services, Fraser said.
Fraser said steps had already been taken to coordinate services with a meeting of representatives of various agencies, nonprofits and voluntary groups, including: Good Samaritan Haven homeless shelter in Barre; Another Way drop-in center in Montpelier; Capstone Community Action in Barre; the Bethany Church winter warming shelter in Montpelier; Montpelier Police Department; and the Montpelier Social and Economic Justice Committee.
“This round table conversation led to the identification of more outreach, public bathrooms and a drop-in center as immediate needs which could be addressed relatively quickly,” Fraser’s memo said. “All participants expressed eagerness to work with a newly formed task force to dig deeper into the issues.”
In forming a task force, Fraser recommended that service providers not be included.
“They are resources and important parts of the conversation but should not be steering the final conclusion and recommendations of a group,” Fraser said.
Fraser said staff recommended that members of a task force should include: two City Council members; one current or formerly homeless person; one downtown business owner (selected by businesses) and a member of the Social and Economic Justice Committee. If a larger group is desired, Fraser said it could also include a school department social worker and a representative of the interfaith community.
Staff working on the task already includes Yvonne Bird, director of the Montpelier Community Justice Center, Chief Facos, Fraser and his assistant Jamie Granfield.
In discussion about the homeless and itinerant population, there has also been much discussion about the impact of mental illness that often causes or accompanies homelessness.
The police shooting-death of Mark Johnson in Montpelier on Friday is likely to come up at the meeting, with several people in the community expressing concern about the need for more services to deal with mental health crises in the city.
“As you know, I can’t comment on the death of Mark Johnson while the matter is under investigation, other than to offer my sympathy to Mr. Johnson’s family, as well as the officers involved and their families,” Fraser said in an email.
“Homelessness has many root causes including domestic violence, substance abuse, loss of employment, mental health and others,” Fraser added.
Fraser noted that Johnson was not homeless and lived at Montpelier Apartments on Main Street for many years before his death.
Fraser said that Montpelier was no exception having to address the many issues posed by homelessness.
“There are no easy fixes,” Fraser said. “The Council is appointing a group to take a thorough look at how these situations impact our residents and businesses, and the homeless people who move into downtown looking for services or donations.
“The task force will hopefully include people with a variety of experience, including those who are on the front lines of this work. I’m optimistic they will find ways to ensure people get the help they need and coexist with our community,” he added.
BARRE — With a series of summer projects nearing a frenzied finish in the two-town, three-school Barre Unified Union School District a new one was nearly added to the list this week.
However, some test digging at Spaulding High School on Tuesday ruled out the quick fix Facilities Director Jamie Evans was hoping for, which means he’ll be using an oil-fired boiler to heat the school’s gymnasium this winter.
Evans warned members of the School Board’s facilities committee of that “worst-case scenario” on Monday explaining there was a detectable drop in water pressure in the line that runs from the school’s wood chip boiler to its gymnasium. At the time, he hoped, the leak was in one of couple of easy to repair locations, but test digging conducted Tuesday confirmed that isn’t the case.
“We found out what we needed to know,” Evans said Tuesday afternoon, confirming that the pipe is leaking in an area that would require ripping up a portion of parking lot to repair.
With summer vacation coming to a close and a secondary heating source for the gym available Evans made the easy call.
“We’ll tackle it next summer,” he said.
Though heating the gym with oil instead of wood chips will be marginally more expensive, Evans said he’d much prefer to plan for the disruptive repair than squeeze it in two weeks before school starts.
Fortunately the gymnasium, which was built as part of an addition in 1995, is on a separate heating loop than the rest of the school, which will still be serviced by the wood chip boiler that has been its primary heating source since it was installed in 2002.
Evans who briefed the committee on the heating issue at Spaulding updated them on a series of projects that are winding down throughout the district that also includes elementary schools in Barre and Barre Town.
“It’s crunch time right now,” he said, noting facilities staff at all three schools are busy wrapping up their summer work and a couple of significant project are nearing completion.
The most noticeable of those projects are at Spaulding where a complete overhaul of the school’s library is entering its final phase and a digital message board that has been sitting in a box waiting for a zoning change for three years will soon be installed on the front lawn.
Evans said brackets needed to attach the digital sign to granite housing that was installed months ago are being fabricated and he hopes that project will be complete before students return.
The library has to be. A “storefront window” that looks out on the corridor is set is expected to be installed on Friday – a day after the library’s new circulation desk is delivered.
Evans said the library has been repainted two-thirds of the carpet is down and the book shelves will soon be back and stocked with books that have been stored in boxes all summer.
Over at Barre City Elementary School, contractors are finishing work replacing a portion of the school’s roof, flooring has been replaced in eight freshly painted classrooms and the gym floor has been repainted and refinished.
Though school officials had hoped to complete a fairly extensive overhaul to the canopy-covered front entrance to Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, that project was deferred to due to the discovery of substandard soils. Instead, Evans said the front sidewalks are being repaired and flooring in some classrooms has been replaced along with regular summer maintenance.
WILLIAMSTOWN — Rama Schneider has a new assignment, and it might make quarterbacking the committee that brokered the voter-approved merger of school districts in Williamstown and nearby Northfield look like a cake walk.
During its Monday night meeting, the Select Board unanimously appointed Schneider to serve as chairman of a reconfigured committee that will try yet again to develop a proposal that could open some town roads up for use by all-terrain vehicles.
Some, like Schneider, have characterized the effort as a quest for compromise while others — on both sides of the divisive issue — have equated it to hunting for unicorns. Those who hold the latter view have been right thus far because heading into Monday night’s meeting the debate over an ill-defined ATV ordinance had, for the most part, been a wheel-spinning waste of time.
Bogged down by controversy, confusion, frustration and a fair amount of finger-pointing an earlier version of the committee was on the verge of disbanding after three meetings.
The former school board member who served as chairman of the committee that proposed what is now the Paine Mountain School District, Schneider offered to try to help the committee work through what he acknowledged were deep differences of opinion.
“This is a touch subject. There’s no doubt about it,” Schneider said in what may have been the understatement of the evening.
“There’s a lot of angst and obviously a lot of disagreement,” he added during a very long discussion that revolved around whether it was worth getting the committee back on track.
It was a discussion during which one of the ATV enthusiasts who serves on the committee openly talked about collecting the signatures needed to force a town-wide vote on his fledgling club’s still-evolving request even as resident Richard Flies wondered how the idea survived the summer.
“I can’t figure out how this even got to this point,” said Flies, who expressed little interest in finding middle ground with a “social club … that wants to develop a recreational activity on our back roads” in order to legally get from here to there.
“They have everything gain and nothing to lose,” he said. “As a homeowner on one of these proposed roads we have everything to lose and nothing to gain.”
Flies cited studies that show property values along ATV trails in New Hampshire and Maine dropped as much as 20 percent due to impacts associated with that extra traffic.
Chairman Matthew Rouleau said he had hoped the initial committee would take a deeper dive into those and other issues before coming back to the Select Board with a recommendation. That, didn’t happen.
“It’s hard to believe that my intention when creating this committee was so it wouldn’t land in our lap and it’s been no other place but in our lap since we started,” he said.
Rouleau said he remained optimistic that a committee composed of those on both sides of the issue could come to some agreement with clearer direction and an agreed upon structure.
Many of the nearly 50 residents who attended the meeting said the committee’s structure should not include any Select Board members. Two – Francis Covey and Chris Wade – served on the earlier committee and were blamed for the drama that caused it to stall.
That was the view of committee member Beth Allen, who said Wade’s performance at the committee’s final meeting was unacceptable and his continued service on the panel would make it difficult for her to return.
Following a turbulent first meeting the Allen said the committee seemed to have righted itself before Wade raised allegations of secret meetings designed to undermine the effort.
“We were on a roll, we were making progress, we were connecting with our neighbors and then we got accused unjustly of … wrecking the committee,” she said.
Covey said he would willingly relinquish his seat on the committee, that he acknowledged wasn’t functioning well.
“It was just headed down a bad road,” he said.
Schneider said he was confident a committee of eight residents – four on either side of the issue – led by a neutral chairperson capable of breaking ties on procedural issues could prepare a recommendation for the board. He said he was willing to serve as chairman if asked, but noted others in the community were more than capable.
Board members accepted Schneider’s offer and agreed his suggestion they shouldn’t be represented on the committee.
Four residents who expressed concern about the ATV proposal that was first floated in April were reappointed to the committee. They include Allen, Shaun Boyce, Richard Chalmers and Mike Martel. Proponents of the ATV plan – including three who served on the earlier committee – were also appointed. Those members are Travis Pierce, Gordon Pirie, Mike St. Lawrence, and Lloyd MacCormack.
Several residents stressed the need for transparency going forward. That was an issue for the earlier committee as requests for information were sometimes went unanswered, meeting minutes were unavailable and the initial proposal, which involved nearly 20 town roads, was never posted on the town’s website.
Rouleau said that proposal lacked significant detail and shouldn’t be viewed as the starting point for the new committee’s discussions.
Though the committee has been seated, several key questions remain unanswered – most notably the mechanism for approving whatever the committee comes up with.
Some expressed a preference for a board-adopted ordinance that could be swiftly suspended if it isn’t working as anticipated and others argued a town-wide vote was the preferred route given the importance of the issue and its potential impact on many residents.
Town Meeting Day was frequently mentioned as a logical date for a vote, but that would mean a committee that was told “not to rush” must wrap up its work by the end of the year. That work, several said, should include a renewed effort to work with private landowners to create as many off-road alternatives for the trail as possible.
BARRE — The Agency of Education on Tuesday awarded $200,000 in Equity Literacy Grants to 13 school districts for seven projects state-wide, according to a news release from the agency.
“We received applications requesting approximately $487,000,” said Secretary of Education Dan French. “It was particularly exciting to see districts and supervisory unions working together to create joint proposals to benefit Vermont students.”
One such joint proposal comes from the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, Montpelier Roxbury School District, and Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union which received a collective $15,000 to distribute a survey to the parents, community members, teachers, staff and invested parties at the beginning of the school year to collect data and compile personalized learning plans for each district,and local meetings conducted throughout the year bringing school districts together.
Equity Literacy nights will be planned for parents as a part of the grant, and plans will continue into the next school year, the release stated.
“It’s a two-year training multiple times throughout the next two years,” said Montpelier-Roxbury Superintendent Libby Bonesteel on Tuesday.
Bonesteel said nine members of the administration would be trained in “Courageous Conversation,” a model used to uncover implicit biases, an essential tool in a largely non-diverse state.
“We have to think hard about how we created our schools,” Bonesteel said. “It’s an in-depth intensive area of work.”
A district-wide equity team made up of 15 people would also be created to serve as another level on a multi-tiered system of support, Bonesteel said.
“Working on equity as access and outcome, that is the centerpiece of our school improvement plans,” Bonesteel said. “We are putting the building blocks in for a more effective model ... for the next few years.”
Rutland High School received a portion of the grant money as well. Attempts to reach RHS Principal Bill Olsen were unsuccessful on Tuesday.
According to the release from the Agency of Education, Rutland’s plan for their grant money is to send 16 students, administrators, teachers, para educators, and other stakeholders to the Rowland Foundation’s Annual Conference at the University of Vermont in Burlington on Oct. 23, and will be tasked with bringing back results and insight to RHS’s next Global Issues Network Conference, whose theme will be Equity and Inclusion, according to the release.
The conference will include workshopping sessions for participants, who will also receive a copy of “White Fragility,” by DeAngelo to be read and analyzed.
The conference is slated to end with small-group workshopping and expression of what they learned during the day, where teachers and other educational professionals will be tasked with analyzing racial and ethnicity-based inequalities in their schools, districts, learning materials and school policies as well as on a larger scale at the state and national levels, the release said.
Other recipients of the grant funds included: the Champlain Valley School District; Colchester School District; South Burlington School District and Winooski School District; the Central Vermont Supervisory Union; Maple Run Unified School District; Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union; Missisquoi Valley UHSD; the Orange Southwest School District, the release stated.
“A recent call by a national coalition of mental health advocates for presidential candidates to focus on mental health issues is timely and valuable.”
In the news
A Williamstown man is arraigned on burglary charges for breaking into LBJ’s Grocery in Worcester. A2
Additional motions are filed in the case of a gynecologist accused of artificially inseminating a patient in the 1970s. A3
Line Dancing class. $5, 3:30 p.m. Barre Area Senior, 131 South Main St. #4, Barre, firstname.lastname@example.org, 802-479-9512.