MONTPELIER — Business owners, the police and the city of Montpelier are grappling with a homeless and transient population problem on streets in the Capital City.
Local landlord David Kelley has requested that the City Council consider a “no loitering” policy at its meeting on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
A housing shortage in Montpelier with a less than 1% vacancy rate and rising prices have made it difficult to find affordable housing in the city, adding to the homeless population. The Good Samaritan Haven in Barre doesn’t allow guests to stay in the homeless shelter during the day, pushing people out onto streets and sidewalks where they have come into conflict with commerce and the community, according to some business owners. Other business owners expressed empathy for the homeless and said there should be more housing and funding of services for them. The Montpelier City Police Department is sometimes caught in the middle, having to respond when laws are broken but also trying to connect the homeless with available services.
Kelley said he had received complaints from tenants about “folks sitting in front of his building causing noise and the smell of smoke to enter their leased space,” according to a memorandum to the council.
“The problems that have been expressed to me are ... cigarette smoke, noise, interfering with a law office and their business and then blocking entrances to businesses, making it difficult for those businesses,” Kelley said.
Kelley said instead of giving money to panhandlers — who have been reported using money collected to buy alcohol — it would be better to donate money to services for the poor, such as food shelves, or homeless shelter, mental health and substance abuse services.
“I’m not sure folks walking by, handing over a quarter, or 50 cents or a dollar is necessarily helping us if we’re dealing with substance abuse or homelessness or food insecurity; I think we need to communicate what services are available and how they can be accessed,” Kelley said. “I think we can all also provide better, more comfortable spaces for people that want to hang out downtown, rather than right in front of businesses that are struggling already. They’ve got enough problems with (Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos,” he added.
Attorney Richard Brock, who has a law office in a Kelley building on State Street, expressed both discomfort with the actions of the homeless and sympathy for their predicament.
“They’re outside my building,” Brock said on Monday. “I hear the noise they make and that disturbs me a lot. It’s happened before. I’m sympathetic to people who don’t want noise and cigarette smoke.
“Sometimes when I see those people, I think to myself, ‘I’m so lucky that I grew up in an intact home,’” he added.
A few doors down at Capital Kitchen, owner Jess Turner was also both concerned about the impact of transient people on her business and the plight of being homeless.
“I’ve had to ask people to move along before who have been in the nook in front of my door and in front of my window,” Turner said. “But I’ve never encountered any confrontation with anyone when asked to move.
“When asking people to leave, I try to do so with sensitivity and kindness, and they’ve left in a friendly way,” she added.
At Positive Pie, co-owner Melissa Whittaker, also expressed sympathy for the homeless, which she said was both a local and a national problem.
“I don’t feel like the homeless people out here bother us that much, even though just now, I walked to the bank. ... There were a couple sitting outside and another guy further down I see all the time.
“I don’t feel like they’re dangerous, I don’t feel afraid of them or that it’s threatening in any way at all. It’s just sad. It would be great if there was help available for them,” she added, noting that Positive Pie employs two people who are homeless but who could not afford to rent housing in the city.
Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos noted that there were “a host of problems” that can lead to someone becoming homeless, including a difficult or abusive relationship, mental health issues and substance abuse. In some cases, he said, it was also a personal lifestyle choice with homeless people opposed to any kind of authoritarian rule or who were not interested in seeking services. Some transient people panhandling were more aggressive, verbally and physically, which warranted law enforcement intervention, he added.
One of the things that our officers try to do — because it’s not necessarily a police problem — is who do you call?” Facos said. “We see ourselves, and (act) as facilitators; how do we create a connection with that person or individuals and how do we start to help? Which services do we start to engage them with, when we can?”
Facos pointed to the MPD’s Safe Catch program which offers people with addiction problems the chance to connect with rehabilitation programs. Similarly, police will connect people with mental health services that can also lead to help with transitional housing, he said.
Facos also pointed to Another Way, on Barre Street, which provides referral services for central Vermonters who are homeless, unemployed or suffering with addiction, mental health issues and other life crises.
In response to an uptick in calls to the police about the homeless, Facos also noted that panhandling and hanging out on the streets, even if inconvenient for some, was “absolutely Constitutionally protected free speech.”
Both Facos and City Manager Bill Fraser have disputed claims the police are arbitrarily singling out homeless people and issuing no-trespass orders as “absolutely false.”
But he also acknowledged that there had been police patrols on trails behind the Pavilion Building to check on reports of illegal encampments and activity. Other camps exist in Sabin’s Pasture and near the Staples store off Route 302 in Berlin, he added.
A group of homeless and transient people at the former pocket park site on Main Street on Monday, who agreed to be interviewed but not identified, acknowledged the activities of concern on State and Main streets. Others said the complaints were “dramatizations” to justify efforts to move them on. Some called for a homeless shelter and more affordable housing in the state capital.
“Affordable housing? You better start smoking weed, because that’s a pipe dream, home boy,” said one homeless man.
In an email, Mayor Anne Watson said the City Council has already dealt with the issues of smoking and panhandling in the downtown, adding that the discussion on Wednesday would deal with the legality of “no loitering” signs, and a larger conversation about homelessness in the city in the next few months.