MONTPELIER — The City Council resoundingly rejected a call on Wednesday for a “no loitering” ordinance to move the homeless and itinerant population off downtown streets in the Capital City.
The call by local landlord David Kelley — supported by some local businesses — was dismissed by the council as legally unenforceable unless laws were being broken, after consulting with the Montpelier Police Department. Several other 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.
The concern over the homeless on the streets follows complaints about sidewalks and business entrances being blocked, aggressive panhandling, cigarette smoke wafting into businesses, public intoxication and drug dealing.
Kelley was not present at the meeting but his partner, Candace Moot, who also owns a building on State Street, spoke for both of them and read a letter to the council that stressed how brick-and-mortar businesses were struggling in the age of internet sales without having to deal with additional problems posed by the homeless.
“This summer, a handful of people have chosen to sit or even congregate in front of the buildings on the corner of State and Main (streets) in Montpelier,” she read. “The result has been a steady stream of difficulties for the businesses that support these buildings and that ultimately help pay the property taxes for those buildings.”
She went on to list the complaints about businesses being impacted but acknowledged the Constitutional rights of the homeless to congregate, panhandle and express themselves in various ways.
“There are plenty of places in downtown Montpelier where people can congregate, smoke cigarettes, talk, sing, play musical instruments,” Moot added, and asked the city to consider “reasonable steps” to help concerned business owners.
Moot also suggested some solutions that included providing a list of social services for the homeless that could also be posted on the city website. Moot also asked that notices be placed to discourage people from giving money to panhandlers or that the city only allow panhandling further down State or Main streets or require permits to solicit donations.
Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos noted there is already A Survivor’s Guide available, 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. He said the police are sensitive to the difficulties of the homeless population, could not violate their civil rights and only make arrests if laws are broken.
Fellow Officer Diane Mathews said she regularly has contact with the homeless and note that many restaurants will donate food to them or to city churches that provide lunch for the homeless during the week.
Several speakers at the meeting said that some of individuals were homeless by choice, preferred to live outdoors and did not want help or services.
The city has a warming shelter in winter at Bethany Church, administered by the Good Samaritan Haven homeless shelter in Barre. There is also Another Way on Barre Street, which works with the homeless, unemployed and those struggling with addiction, mental health issues and other life crises, several speakers at the meeting noted.
Facos said the police would welcome having a social worker from Washington County Mental Health Services work with them to help the homeless connect with the services they need, a proposal supported by councilors.
Other members of the public and Councilor Ashley Hill said they objected to criminalizing homelessness, having experienced homelessness themselves in the past.
One resident, Stephen Whitaker, noted that the homeless had “nowhere to go, nothing constructive to do,” and that there was a lack of adequate services for the homeless who were “expected to conform to the existing structure.”
“This is a human emergency and the can has been kicked down the road long enough,” Whitaker, said, adding that it would be helpful for the homeless to know where they could sleep without running afoul of the law.
Resident Vicki Lane said: “There’s nothing wrong with seeing the homeless people, the ill people,” and asked that they not be victimized.
But there were other business owners who said they were concerned that activities and behavior of the homeless were hurting their businesses and scaring off customers in a fragile economy.
Newcomer business owners Dan and Jodi Kelly, of Stonecliff Animal Surgical Center and The Garage Cultural Center, on the Heney Lot off State Street, spoke of seeing drug deals around their property and having to clean up feces near the building that they attributed to the homeless population.
“This is a huge concern of ours and probably one of our biggest challenges with opening new businesses in Montpelier right now,” said Dan Kelly, adding that he had also witnessed drug deals with school-age, young adults.
Jodi Kelly said she had also witnessed drug activity near the businesses where users were “scary stoned.”
“It’s a beautiful spot but it’s dangerous,” she added.
Rob Farrell, the new executive director of Good Samaritan Haven, also made an appearance at the meeting and said he was willing to support a task force and offered help to address homeless issues.
Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, said she would work within the Legislature — which has already made funding available to warming shelters in Barre and Montpelier — to address the issue of homelessness in Montpelier.
The council agreed to take immediate action in forming a task force and include the homeless to address the problem.