MONTPELIER — Concerns over a homelessness and vagrancy issue affecting Montpelier have raised concerns as to whether services for those in need are being provided adequately.
The City Council tonight is expected to weigh in on concerns over “nuisance ordinance,” or anti-loitering law, that could address specific concerns raised by local business owners and member of the public who are reporting an uptick of instances of panhandling, vagrancy and loitering around the Capital City.
Police reports have shown a recent uptick in concerns by individuals downtown centered on vagrancy, public intoxication, smoking in public and trespassing. Police officials have said while they have responded to concerns, there is no concerted effort to remove any individuals from downtown.
A review of state, local and nonprofit agencies around central Vermont shows there are services available to to those less fortunate who might be seeking assistance. In fact, the region may have more resources than many.
Washington County Mental Health provides a comprehensive listing of contact information — whether it’s for food, support, mental health counseling, or housing — to anyone in need of assistance. The contacts are being widely distributed around the region.
But there is a notable problem.
A review of housing programs for the homeless and transient population in central Vermont reveals an extreme shortage of housing, despite the efforts of numerous organizations to tackle the issue.
The shortage has created problems, with calls for community leaders wrestling with complaints from businesses and residents about the behavior and activities of “the homeless” in downtown Montpelier. Pressure is on to come up with a solution in the state’s capital.
Community leaders on the front lines of the issue say problems for the homeless are exacerbated by other issues, such as mental health and substance abuse issues, criminal backgrounds or a lack of references that can sometimes preclude them qualifying for available housing, and a shortage of funding to support additional subsidized housing.
But there is a network of local agencies working to address the problem, prioritize services for those most in need, and carefully managing available funding to provide housing for as many people as possible.
Agencies involved include: municipal housing authorities, nonprofit housing groups, mental health services and homeless shelters.
Advocates say even the worst cases of people suffering from homelessness can be addressed and needs met through a variety of services. The actual number of homeless in central Vermont was not available.
People with substance abuse issues can seek help alcohol and drug abuse programs through the Agency of Human Services that fund The Lighthouse — a program of Washington County Mental Health Services in South Barre, as well as Central Vermont Substance Abuse Services in Berlin. Issues with substance abuse and mental illness can lead to temporary housing services and referral to recovery services, counseling and job training programs.
The homeless also are directed to the Good Samaritan Haven shelter in Barre, which runs overflow shelters at the Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre, and the Bethany Church in Montpelier, which also supports a day shelter; also available is Another Way, which works with the homeless, unemployed and those struggling with addiction, mental health issues and other life crises. Participants in those programs will receive referrals to affordable or subsidized housing programs.
The interfaith church community, in Barre and Montpelier provide regular meals — breakfast and lunch — through the week, and also makes referrals to housing programs.
The major housing programs in central Vermont include Downstreet Housing, and the municipal housing programs in Montpelier and Barre. Capstone Community Action provides some housing as well.
But there is a severe shortage of housing and long waiting lists, advocates note.
JoAnn Troiano, executive director of the Montpelier Housing Authority, said the agency provides permanent housing for the elderly or disabled and some families.
“We also run a small Section 8 voucher program, where when your name comes to the top of the list you get a voucher to find an apartment within the rent guidelines from any private owner,” Troiano said. “But there’s not enough, there’s never enough housing and one of the problems in Montpelier is that the vacancy rate is low, and therefore, with the exception of the nonprofits like Downstreet Housing and us, the rents are high.
“People have to die or go to a nursing home before there is a vacancy available. So you can be on a waiting list for years, and we give a preference to people who are homeless,” she added.
Chip Castle, executive director of the Barre Housing Authority, said the agency has two programs for housing: public housing, and the other is called Section 8 housing through the Choice Voucher Program.
“In public housing in Barre City and Barre Town, we have seven properties,” Castle said. “They consist of 361 units of public housing and range anywhere from a zero bedroom, or efficiency, all the way up to four bedrooms.
“Six of those seven properties are for elders and adults with disabilities, and the other property, Green Acres, is for low-income families with children,” he said.
Castle noted that there are eligibility requirements that look at income, criminal record checks and former landlord references to qualify.
But he noted that the city’s properties are running at about 99% occupancy at all times “So the waiting lists, I’m going to guess, for public housing is anywhere from six months to a year, minimally,” he said.
The Section Housing Choice Voucher Program runs similarly to the Public Housing Program in eligibility requirements.
“In the Section 8 Housing Voucher Program, we basically contract with private landlords to provide the housing,” Castle said. “The person would pay their 30% of adjusted rent to the landlord directly and we put a check in the landlord’s bank account monthly for the rest of the money for the rent that’s being charged, rents that are fair-market rents.”
At Downstreet, all of the housing is permanent, long-term housing, with a total of 415 housing units and 82 mobile homes on lots run by the agency, said Liz Genge, director of property and asset management. The agency also supports 15 apartments for Washington County Mental Health Services’ patients.
“The demand for that type of apartment that has rental assistance is what the real issue is, in addition to supply,” Genge said.
At Capstone, where several programs within the agency help gauge need, the problem is evident.
“The reality is that more and more people are becoming homeless because of the lack of housing that is available and the inability of people to meet their monthly needs,” said Executive Director Sue Minter. “What we do is try to pull together this Continuum of Care, bring all those various organizations together on a weekly basis, and we actually have a spreadsheet of cases (to review).
“All kinds of people with housing needs come to our service providers and we note all of their housing needs and then try to assess where the opportunities. We do offer transitional units where people have about three months to try and find housing, which we also work with them to do,” she said.
Eileen Nooney, director of Family and Community Support Services at Capstone, added: “We’re really looking at that big picture to make sure that situation is sustainable. This is a complicated system, there really is very little housing in central Vermont, so as soon as someone has a housing need, they need to contact us as soon as possible.”
A list of resources for individuals in need of services is available at www.timesargus.com
Editors’ note: Disclaimer, Steven Pappas is president of the board of directors of Capstone Community Action. He assigned Stephen Mills to report this article.