MONTPELIER — The City Council has approved spending up to $10,000 to allow an overflow homeless shelter at Bethany Church to open early.
The approval followed a request from the newly formed Homelessness Task Force Committee after its first meeting Sept. 25 that was brought to City Council. Homeless shelter officials said it was hoped the funding would allow the Bethany Church shelter to open Nov. 1, two weeks ahead of schedule.
The Good Samaritan Haven in Barre has 30 beds for the homeless and is also funded by the state to run two other overflow shelters, at the Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre with 14 beds and the Bethany Church shelter in Montpelier with 20 beds. The Good Samaritan operates year-round, while the overflow shelters normally operate from Nov. 15 to April 15.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, Rob Farrell, executive director of Good Samaritan Haven, presented an itemized budget totaling $10,281 for the costs of an overnight coordinator ($1,400) overnight staff ($5,100), administration and supervision of support staff ($1,625), fringe rate for taxes and benefits ($1,056), pest control monthly fee ($50) and food ($100).
Councilors expressed hope that the final cost to the city to open the shelter early would be less because the original request for between $7,000 and $10,000 was to cover the cost of opening the shelter a month early.
Shelter officials said the cost would be less because the logistics of hiring staff and other needs required time to make the necessary arrangements which delayed opening the shelter early.
While councilors were also concerned about a request to spend money that was not in this year’s budget, they agreed the city should do what it could to support the needs of the homeless in Montpelier.
Ken Russell, a member of the Homelessness Task Force Committee, thanked the council for supporting the request to open the Bethany Church shelter early.
“We appreciate your hard work on this and all that you do for the community, and thank you for responding with a sense of urgency, and understand that you can’t just move heaven and earth with a snap of the fingers, so we appreciate your efforts,” Russell said.
Farrell noted that funding of all the shelters and meal services in central Vermont — which are supported by state grants to Good Samaritan Haven — would also include Another Way on Barre Street, beginning Nov. 15, which supports central Vermonters who are homeless, unemployed, or suffering with addiction, mental health issues and other life crises. The peer-led nonprofit helps people transition, recover and move toward a better place in their lives, and provides a daytime refuge when the homeless leave shelters in the morning.
There were some tense moments during the discussion about opening the shelter early when resident and Homelessness Task Force Committee member Stephen Whitaker again criticized the council for failing to act sooner on the request to fund opening the shelter early. He also complained that Good Samaritan Haven had refused to allow scrutiny of its public funding and said there were legal precedents that protected the homeless camping on public land until the shelter opened that were being violated by police in the city.
Councilor Ashley Hill interrupted Whitaker, saying she was concerned about the “tone and tenor” of complaints against the council and others “over numerous months,” while acknowledging that Whitaker made valued contributions to civic life in the city.
Mayor Anne Watson intervened, and suggested Whitaker be allowed to speak for his allotted time before councilors responded. Hill later apologized to Whitaker and urged a more “collaborative approach.”
City Manager Bill Fraser also noted that the city was not responsible for providing social or operational services for homeless people in the city but was willing to work with a licensed provider, such as Good Samaritan Haven, and help with interim funding to open the Bethany Church shelter early.
One speaker at the meeting, Travis Hill, credited the work of staff at Good Samaritan Haven and Another Way who “saved my life” and offered to volunteer his time and knowledge to support services for the homeless.
Councilor Jack McCullough also credited Good Samaritan Haven as “the one entity that is in a position that has been correctly been identified as handling a crisis (for the homeless).”
In an email Thursday, Whitaker said he was resigning from the Homelessness Task Force Committee because of his concerns about the way the needs of the homeless in the city were being managed.