MONTPELIER — The City Council will be asked to review recommendations for a task force to address the issue of homelessness in the Capital City at a meeting at City Hall tonight (Wednesday), at 6:30 p.m.
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.
The issue followed complaints by local landlord David Kelley and other local business owners about sidewalks and business entrances being blocked, aggressive panhandling, cigarette smoke wafting into businesses, public intoxication and drug dealing.
But Kelley’s request for a no loitering ordinance was dismissed by the council as legally unenforceable unless laws were being broken, after consulting with the Montpelier Police Department.
Instead, several 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.
In a memorandum to the council, 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,” said Fraser’s memo. Additionally, there are sanitation concerns, as well as a lack of facilities for people to use.”
However, Fraser noted that while there are homeless people who desire social services and need assistance in navigating social services, there are some in the homeless and itinerant population who had voluntarily chosen to live “a certain lifestyle” outdoors and on city streets and were not seeking assistance.
For those that did seek assistance, Fraser suggested steps the city could take might include providing public restrooms or a social worker in the Police Department. The city could also develop a plan for more homeless shelters, transitional housing or other appropriate services, he added.
At last month’s council meeting, Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos said officers routinely hand out A Survivor’s Guide, 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.
Facos said the police are sensitive to the difficulties of the homeless population, could not violate their civil rights and could only make arrests if laws were broken.
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 said. “They can, however, consider ways to make such support services more accessible to those who seek it.”
Steps Fraser suggested the council and the city could take included providing 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.
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.
“This round table conversation led to the identification of more outreach, public bathrooms and a drop-in center as immediate needs which could be addressed relatively quickly,” Fraser’s memo said. “All participants expressed eagerness to work with a newly formed task force to dig deeper into the issues.”
In forming a task force, Fraser recommended that service providers not be included.
“They are resources and important parts of the conversation but should not be steering the final conclusion and recommendations of a group,” Fraser said.
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.
Staff working on the task already includes Yvonne Bird, director of the Montpelier Community Justice Center, Chief Facos, Fraser and his assistant Jamie Granfield.
In discussion about the homeless and itinerant population, there has also been much discussion about the impact of mental illness that often causes or accompanies homelessness.
The police shooting-death of Mark Johnson in Montpelier on Friday is likely to come up at the meeting, with several people in the community expressing concern about the need for more services to deal with mental health crises in the city.
“As you know, I can’t comment on the death of Mark Johnson while the matter is under investigation, other than to offer my sympathy to Mr. Johnson’s family, as well as the officers involved and their families,” Fraser said in an email.
“Homelessness has many root causes including domestic violence, substance abuse, loss of employment, mental health and others,” Fraser added.
Fraser noted that Johnson was not homeless and lived at Montpelier Apartments on Main Street for many years before his death.
Fraser said that Montpelier was no exception having to address the many issues posed by homelessness.
“There are no easy fixes,” Fraser said. “The Council is appointing a group to take a thorough look at how these situations impact our residents and businesses, and the homeless people who move into downtown looking for services or donations.
“The task force will hopefully include people with a variety of experience, including those who are on the front lines of this work. I’m optimistic they will find ways to ensure people get the help they need and coexist with our community,” he added.