MONTPELIER — Ken Russell knows what it means to be humane toward others.
Russell is chairman of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Committee, formed last November. He has embraced the need to address this growing problem on the streets of the state’s capital.
“You can’t go around the problem and you can’t push it away; you’ve got to go through it,” Russell said. “These are human problems and they’ve got to be met with human responses.”
Russell’s role with the task force has been instrumental in focusing on a proactive response to the plight of the homeless. It can be very tricky to find a balance that works for a community.
Last summer local landlord David Kelley petitioned the City Council to enact a “no loitering” ordinance after complaints from business owners about itinerant people blocking doorways and sidewalks, panhandling and scaring away customers.
The council had previously stricken a no-loitering ordinance after learning panhandling is a constitutionally protected form of free speech under the First Amendment. Montpelier’s police chief concurred, saying that unless laws were being broken, police could not intervene.
Police and city officials also are unable to prevent homeless camping on public land if there is no space available in shelters, but police can dismantle an encampment if it has been unoccupied for 48 hours.
The discussion dominated headlines and social media.
The task force
Russell was tapped by Councilor Jack McCullough, director of the Mental Health Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid, to coordinate the work of the Homelessness Task Force Committee, whose charge was quickly expanded to develop a holistic response to the needs of the homeless.
The work includes working with the year-round Good Samaritan Haven, a homeless shelter in Barre with 30 beds. Good Sam also oversees two winter overflow shelters at the Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre with 14 beds and at the Bethany Church in Montpelier with 20 beds. Rick DeAngelis, executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven, also is a member of the task force.
The city has dedicated funds to support the work of the Homelessness Task Force. In October, it provided $10,000 to allow the Bethany Church shelter to open two weeks early in November and close two weeks later in April. The council also dedicated $45,000 in its proposed fiscal year 2020-21 budget to fund services that will include providing lockers for the homeless to secure belongings, and also providing portable toilet units in the city. The funds will support one or two part-time outreach workers to work with the homeless, connecting them with “wraparound” services, such as housing, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and job searches.
The nine-member task force committee is made up of representatives from the city, Washington County Mental Health Services, Vermont Center for Independent Living, Montpelier Business Association, the homeless community, and a peer street outreach worker. The task force meets weekly at City Hall.
Being a voice
Russell was the voice for the task force last month at a House committee, hearing testimony in support of H.492, a “Homeless Bill of Rights” to prevent discrimination against the homeless, authored by Rep. Tom Stevens, a Waterbury Democrat. The testimony came on the same day as the Vermont Housing and Conservation Coalition’s Legislative Day at the State House to lobby lawmakers to fund more affordable housing programs across Vermont.
“Our group has been a conduit for both advocating for the voices of the homeless, but also back to the community,” Russell told the committee. “I think it’s a two-way street. You can’t sweep these people away. You’ve got to meet them where they’re at.”
Russell also was a voice the week before, on Homelessness Day at the State House, supporting a resolution submitted by Stevens and Rep. Anne Pugh, D-Chittenden 7-2. The resolution noted that the Point in Time Survey, done on a single night in January 2019, found that there were 1,089 Vermonters without secure housing, 23% of whom were children.
The resolution also noted that the 2019 Housing Opportunity Grant Program reported that the average shelter stay for the homeless was 52 days, the longest in more than 18 years. And, the Out of Reach 2019 report noted that a wage of $22.78 an hour would be needed to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in Vermont, the resolution added.
In Washington County, Vermont Interfaith Action of Central Vermont noted that between 2016 and 2020, the homeless population of Washington County rose from 8% to 13% — an anomaly compared with the rest of the state which has seen the homeless population decrease.
How he got here
When it comes to helping the homeless, Russell is an ardent advocate who came to his calling in a roundabout way.
Russell, 52, was born in Burlington and grew up in Brandon for the first 18 years of his life.
He grew up in a society that valued being inclusive, something that would serve him well later on in life, he said. “When I grew up in high school, there was a really strong ethic that everybody in the community matters, everybody’s equal, there’s a real sense of small-D democracy and just good solid community values.”
Russell was quick to point out that he came from a happy home, with all of the benefits that “privilege” brings. Grandparents on both sides of the family had important and historic ties to the U.S. Navy. His father was a successful farmer in Vermont; his mother moved in celebrated circles in the community and would hold fundraisers for gubernatorial candidates.
But like many young adults, he chose to push back against his roots and moved clear across the country to pursue another life.
“It was, like, ‘How do I fit in?’” he said. “I was conflicted about my relationship with all of that and that’s partly why I went a long way away to college to find my own way and I’m really glad I did.”
When Russell left home, he landed at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in English and studio art in 1985.
“I lived a very bohemian lifestyle and I lived in garages in Silicon Valley,” Russell said. “I lived in San Francisco for a while, and I did community access television for about 10 years, and then I got involved in homelessness issues in Palo Alto.”
“When I heard that they were going to make it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk in Palo Alto, I thought about the commons; there needs to be a place for people to be, so I went and spoke at the city council,” Russell said.
The “commons” was a reference to common land in England through the ages, land owned collectively where people have had traditional rights, such permission to gaze their livestock, collect wood or cut turf for fuel.
“For me that was an essential ingredient in thinking about what the world is: We all live on this earth and everything can’t be private property,” Russell said. “It was a compelling idea and it’s part of the New England ethic that we’re in common together.”
Between 1996 and 2003, Russell also volunteered to work on a variety of social issues for the ACLU in California, in San Francisco.
“There were a series of ordinances they were trying to pass (in Palo Alto) that were targeting (the homeless) population, including aggressive panhandling, the sit-lie ordinance,” Russell said. “They issued a poster of the 25 habitual drunks that they distributed to the liquor stores that came from a law that targeted Native Americans, the so-called Indian laws.”
It would lead Russell to join Palo Alto’s Human Relations Commission where he was the liaison to the police department, addressing police practices, racial profiling, homelessness, free speech and public protest issues.
“I would go to city council meetings and speak out against these ordinances and appeal to people’s sense of greater good,” Russell said.
He also worked on providing a “wet shelter” for homeless people with substance abuse problems in the city.
Russell’s work for the ACLU in California also involved work in Sacramento as a legislative coordinator, doing coalition work on prison reform, opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act, and media strategy and messaging for three California ACLU affiliates. His work included parole reform, shortening sentences, helping people to get driver’s licenses and attending vigils at executions at San Quentin State Prison.
In 2007, Russell returned to the East Coast to spend a year at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, getting a master’s in public administration.
Back to VermontThen Russell moved to Montpelier, where he lives in a Victorian-era boarding house on Elm Street with his partner, Rhonda Prensky, and their children.
In 2008, he worked as a communications consultant for former then-Speaker of the House Gayle Symington, D-Chittenden 8; and he worked as campaign chief of staff for Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, in 2010. In between, Russell spent six months studying for a certificate in mediation and applied conflict studies at the former Woodbury College in Montpelier.
Russell’s family property management business with his siblings allowed him to continue to volunteer, as a trustee and the development committee chairman at the Orchard Valley Waldorf School in East Montpelier, from 2013 to 2017; and as a member of advisory board at Sterling College in Craftsbury since 2018.
Russell’s prime focus is the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Committee, where his past work for the homeless in California and his thoughtful approach to the problem have been helpful.
McCullough said he recruited Russell because of past work for Montpelier as a community development specialist, and as a liaison to the Montpelier Housing Task Force, from 2011 to 2012.
“He was very knowledgeable about housing and committed to the cause,” McCullough said. “I thought he would be a good person to have on the Homelessness Task Force, because, people don’t have housing. ... Since he’s been on (the task force), he’s put in a tremendous amount of work and he’s done a great service to the city and for the people who are affected by the problem with homelessness. He stands out as someone who is just perfect for the job we’ve asked the task force to do.”
For Russell, the more he does, the more humbled he is by the problem. That inspires him to want to do more.
“It’s like we don’t all fit into the white-collar, picture-postcard perfect village,” he said. “There’s the beautiful, clean view of Vermont, it’s all Woody Jackson and picturesque farmhouses.”
But then there are the times, he said, when the shelter in Montpelier will be full, and he will drive a homeless person to a motel where they can use a voucher for an overnight stay.
“Like tonight, and it’s cold and we’re here in our warm, little homes, and there are a whole bunch of people that aren’t. They’re in a snowstorm, so that sense of urgency, and that this is an ongoing emergency for a lot of people, is a deep concern,” Russell said. “I do think it is incumbent on our community to respond with wisdom and our better angels, not from fear or ignorance.”
Russell added: “Why am I doing this? I share a sense of vulnerability. There’s a sense of humility of ‘That could be me.’”