MONTPELIER — Where is a homeless person who can’t find a bed in a shelter supposed to sleep in the Capital City?
You won’t find a direct answer to that question in an 8-page “Encampment Response Policy” that remains under review by the city’s Homelessness Task Force.
Even as social service agencies are doling out emergency camping equipment to those who are starting to be turned out of the once-subsidized motel rooms where they have been living for more than a year, it isn’t clear where they can pitch a tent in Montpelier.
Can those without suitable shelter rest in peace at Green Mount Cemetery?
That’s an open question.
Can they spend the night in Hubbard Park?
Though reference to an ordinance that prohibits camping after dark in any city park was removed from the draft of the policy the task force reviewed on Wednesday, it isn’t clear that rule won’t still apply.
In fact, if you listened carefully to Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer, it sure sounds like it might.
“It (the proposed policy) doesn’t change any laws or ordinances, nor does it conflict with any city laws or ordinances, and it doesn’t allow camping in ‘high-risk areas,’” Niedermayer told task force members who have requested, but not yet seen a map showing where camping will and won’t be allowed.
Attempts to reach Niedermayer for comment on Thursday were unsuccessful, but the suggestion thus far has been camping won’t be allowed in an evolving list of “high-sensitivity areas.”
It isn’t clear how much publicly owned real estate is left when you exclude those areas — especially if the prohibition on overnight camping in the parks is still in play.
That’s a problem, according to Ken Russell, chair of a task force that agreed to meet again next week to discuss the policy.
“We really need to see a map,” Russell said Thursday, later noting he had been assured by Niedermayer one has been drafted and would be presented to task force members before next Wednesday’s meeting.
The “high-sensitivity areas” flagged in the second draft of the policy take a lot of publicly owned real estate out of play.
Schools and school grounds are on the list, as are multi-use paths and trails in city parks. Wetlands and waterways are off limits and there is a 50-foot buffer from the property line of any private residence or business.
The policy also proposes a 50-foot buffer from the boundary of playgrounds, public parks, athletic fields, tennis and basketball courts and golf courses. A 2,000-foot buffer would be required for any registered sex offender.
Also on the list are licensed day care facilities, which with the exception of city-run day camps, are located on private property, and the city’s water treatment and water resource recovery facility.
The cemetery isn’t on the list, but on Wednesday Cemetery Commissioner Linda Burger wondered whether the 50-foot buffer should apply to grave-site boundaries — a wrinkle that hadn’t previously been considered.
While Niedermayer said the city can create some conditions on homeless encampments, a federal court case prevents it from prohibiting them.
“It is our legal responsibility to allow emergency camping on public property when there is no shelter space available,” she said, describing the policy as an attempt to telegraph the city’s expectations to residents — housed and unhoused — in advance.
There is a shifting tone in a policy Niedermayer said is largely one of “non-involvement” aimed at connecting harmless campers with resources and noting their presence. The section that spells out “high-sensitivity areas” suggests the city “prefers” camping not occur there. Later in the document it spells out how encampments detected in those areas would be posted with information that camping is “not permitted” there and the process for dismantling them.
Though some have questioned why the city doesn’t designate areas for homeless to camp, Niedermayer said that isn’t what the administrative team is recommending and while the policy is being reviewed by the task force and is slated to be taken up by the City Council when it meets on July 21, neither was procedurally necessary.
That said, Niedermayer said there was value to a public discussion of what Councilor Conor Casey described as a “provocative” proposal — one about which he and others on the council have received “a ton of feedback.”
Casey said he was troubled by some of it.
“Some of the comments we’ve been receiving come from a place of fear and prejudice,” he said. “With the idea the city is ‘rolling out the welcome mat and encouraging people who are experiencing homelessness to ... pop up a tent downtown.”
Casey said those generalizations aren’t helpful.
Resident Steve Whitaker said neither, in his view, is the policy, which does nothing to address his long-standing call to create accessible public restrooms, showers and electrical outlets for those who were homeless in the community before the pandemic.
“We’re worried about safety, but we’re not worrying about people not having a place to (relieve themselves) or shower,” he said.
Whitaker said the policy did nothing to address those basic needs and he was underwhelmed by the premise of not charging people for doing something that is legal.
“We’re not going to criminalize homelessness, but we’re going to bureaucratize the hell out of it,” he said.
Niedermayer defended a policy she said was designed to provide city staff a blueprint for dealing with encampments of homeless when and if they come across them.
“It’s not a long-term solution,” she said. “It doesn’t do anything other than connect people with resources that already exist.”
The task force will resume its review of the policy and Whitaker’s request they recommend the city pursue staffing the Transit Center round-the-clock to provide homeless residents access to the restrooms there when it meets next Wednesday.
The Cemetery Commission and the Parks Commission are both expected to consider the policy before the council meets to discuss it on July 21.