MONTPELIER – Recommendations to deal with the city's homelessness were approved by the City Council on Wednesday.
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.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the discussion about homelessness in the city inevitably became intertwined with the police shooting-death of Mark Johnson last week and the connection to mental health issues for some people who are homeless in and around Montpelier. Johnson suffered with mental illness from an early age, according to his sister who lives in Florida, although, he was not homeless.
Several people in the community expressed concern about the need for more services to deal with mental health crises in Montpelier.
“I think I speak for the council when I say that I’m so saddened and heartbroken over the death of Mark Johnson,” Mayor Anne Watson said.
Lawrence Siler, who hosts an ORCA Media public access TV show called “Abled and On-Air,” said he lives at Pioneer Apartments where Johnson had lived. He called for more resources to deal with mental illness and the homeless in the city.
“What needs to happen, in my opinion, is there needs to be more crisis intervention with the Montpelier Police Department,” he said, adding that police officers needed more training to deal with people with mental health issues.
“This should not have happened,” he said, referring to Johnson’s death.
Siler said the police should have spent more than five minutes to de-escalate the confrontation, although Siler acknowledged that efforts to do so ended when Johnson pointed a weapon at police officers. The weapon was later found to be a pellet pistol.
Zach Hughes, of Montpelier, said he was doubly saddened by Johnson’s death, following the death of another friend last weekend.
“I will be part of this effort (to address homelessness) and move forward,” Hughes said, adding that he would continue to support the Montpelier Police Department in its efforts to work with the homeless in the city, as well as people with mental illnesses.
Another resident, Peter Harris, said he was alarmed about “two police homicides in as many years” in the city, referring to the earlier police-shooting death of former alumnus Nathan Giffin, 32, of Essex, at Montpelier High School after allegedly robbing a nearby credit union in January 2018.
Harris called for “corrective action” within the police department, “even if the policeman (who shot Johnson) is exonerated,” he added.
Resident Stephen Whitaker said he agreed with Hughes’ remarks about the need for more police training, which includes a collaboration, called Team Two Vermont, with Washington County Mental Health Services workers in crisis situations.
Resident Elizabeth Parker urged MPD officers to walk city streets more to get to know vulnerable members of the community with mental health issues in case of future crisis incidents.
In a memorandum to the council about a task force to address homelessness, 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,” stated Fraser’s memo. “Additionally, there are sanitation concerns, as well as a lack of facilities for people to use.”
Steps Fraser suggested the council and the city could take included: providing rented 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.
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 stated.
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.
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.
Hughes, and a homeless man, both said they would volunteer to be on the task force.
A representative from the Vermont Center for Independent Living said the task force committee should include a representative that could help the homeless coping with disability issues.
Councilor Dona Bate said she would like to see more than one homeless person on the task force. She also suggested seeking grants to support the work of the task force.
Councilor Conor Casey said he would like to reach out to Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, to provide a link to the legislature to lobby for resources for the homeless.
Whitaker proposed changing the make-up of a task force to include providers – something Fraser advised against in his memo – and “passionate citizen advocates,” who could help provide work opportunities and other services for the homeless.
Whitaker also said there also should be a count of the homeless in Berlin and Barre, which should have their own task forces, and steps should be taken to provide a year-round shelter in Montpelier. Action was needed now with winter approaching together with a long-range plan, he cautioned.
Staff working on the task force already includes: Yvonne Bird, director of the Montpelier Community Justice Center, Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos, Fraser and his assistant Jamie Granfield.
The council agreed to review progress on the homelessness task force at its next meeting.