Burlington is working toward establishing a low-barrier site for the homeless this summer as sites established to house the homeless during the pandemic are starting to close.
The site on North Beach Campground where campers were set up to house homeless individuals who had been staying at the city’s low-barrier shelter will close this week. The state shut down a recovery site at the South Burlington Holiday Inn last week for homeless individuals who tested positive for the virus due to low demand.
Only one homeless Vermonter is known to have tested positive for Covid-19, Geoffrey Pippenger, a senior adviser to the commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, said Monday.
“We really, as a state, did an incredibly effective job of implementing the CDC guidance and practices to slow the spread of the disease, particularly in congregate settings, and really prevented an outbreak among Vermonters experiencing homelessness,” Pippenger said during Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger’s Covid-19 update.
The lease on the campers at North Beach is up at the end of the week, said Kevin Pounds, the executive director of ANEW Place, which provides shelter and services to homeless people in Burlington. The site has had around 25 individuals staying there, he said.
Pounds said in an interview Monday that ANEW Place, which is overseeing the site, is working with the state to transition as many individuals living there as possible to hotels and motels, though some opted to camp instead.
About half of those staying at the site will find shelter in hotel or motel rooms paid for with state vouchers, he said.
Pounds said during the update that ANEW Place was in discussions with the city about opening a tent site at the start of June, possibly on the south side of the North Beach campground.
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“I think any of us who live in Burlington are aware that there are quite a few of our neighbors experiencing homelessness that kind of scatter and survive during the warm weather months,” he said.
Pounds said that the past few weeks have provided a framework for a sanctioned tenting area with a population of around 30 people.
“Some of the same guests that we had in the campers, instead of them just being spread around, we can provide some basic things like showers, bathrooms, and even a meal at night,” he said.
Weinberger said he is committed to expanding low-barrier options throughout the year, especially during the summer.
The South Burlington Holiday Inn was established as a congregate recovery site for those from vulnerable populations who test positive for the disease. But the successful efforts to limit the spread of the virus so far made the site not necessary.
Sarah Phillips, the director of the state Office for Economic Opportunity who is leading the state’s Covid-19 homelessness response, said in an interview that the state decided to close the Holiday Inn site as it did not need a site at that scale.
“The decision was made to pull back on that site specifically, but we still have a need and the capacity to provide alternative housing for folks who need to isolate or recover around the state,” Phillips said.
The state is in ongoing negotiations with the Holiday Inn about a possible future role in the coronavirus response, Pippenger said.
Phillips said that the state was committed to continuing providing services to the homeless during the pandemic and is operating a congregate recovery site at the Rutland Regional Medical Center.
There are no major changes to the state’s offerings coming in the next week, Phillips said.
The state has been offering a voucher program to homeless individuals to live in motels during the pandemic, and Phillips said people’s motel stays wouldn’t end on May 15 as Gov. Phil Scott’s “stay home, stay safe” order expires.
“There’s not going to be a drastic drop-off at that point in time,” she said. “From a Vermont public health standpoint, we need to take a gradual, thoughtful approach to try to keep people safely housed and try to re-house them.”
Mike Smith, the secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said during Scott’s Monday press conference that the “new status quo” will continue this week, but he would not speculate on when the state would start moving homeless individuals currently living in hotels and motels out.
“We do have to think of a long-term plan here, because we cannot have people in motels as the permanent solution for the homeless in the future,” he said. “The status quo will continue here for the short term.”
Phillips said that the state has been planning a longer-term response focusing on how to provide permanent housing for folks experiencing homelessness.
“What really works for people is we help them to access safe, stable and affordable permanent housing,” she said. “How do we get to that, and what are the resources we are mobilizing together to help people into affordable housing, that is where our conversation is shifting towards.”
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