This is the first in a three-part series about the issues surrounding homelessness in Vermont in 2020, from the Underground Workshop, VTDigger’s new platform for student journalism. This first installment was written by Alexandra Smart of Montpelier High School.
On his back was a large down sleeping bag, strapped precariously to a hiking pack, with a raincoat balanced on top of it all. He explained that he carries everything because once, after leaving his things for a couple of hours downtown, they were stolen.
This man in Montpelier, who asked to remain anonymous, stood at the intersection of Montpelier’s State and Main streets, in the center of town.
The man was careful to emphasize that this isn’t his choice. He was laid off during the pandemic and is now housing insecure.
“I work all sorts of odd jobs around town, I paint storefronts and do construction work,” he said. “People assume we are all drunks and don’t care, and even though some are, most of us are just having a hard time.”
Homelessness in Montpelier is certainly not a new issue, but COVID restrictions have highlighted new needs and priorities. Those without secure housing struggle more than ever with accessibility to shelter, while support systems struggle to support an increased demand for basic necessities.
Dawn Little is a street coordinator for the Homelessness Task Force, created by Montpelier’s City Council in 2019. She echoed the common misconception described by the homeless man at the intersection.
“Our privilege allows some of us to turn a blind eye,” she said, “and cast blame on an often blameless issue.”
Little said it’s the small things that make a big difference in quality of life for housing insecure citizens: barriers such as cellphone access are critical. Overnight shelters can be reached by phone but require people to have a phone number to call back when a space opens up.
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Back at the intersection, the man described how his search for shelter left him sleeping on the porch of the Pavilion building, just feet from our State House. Even in the summer months, this is a challenge, as he must be gone when the sun rises.
Last winter he could find a hot meal and the occasional Scrabble game down Main street from the intersection at Bethany Church. Now, eating in a room full of maskless strangers is dangerous. Many housing-insecure people are at high risk due to health issues.
As seasons change, solutions for the distribution of meals shift. Jim Morre is a chef at Taste Solutions, working with food distribution in various areas of Vermont. He works with a catering business that delivers 1,000 free meals a week.
“One good thing that has come out of this is that food availability has increased during the pandemic,” he said, “and some days we can even give people seconds to bring home for dinner.”
The man from the intersection explained that, for most people, meals are still accessible, but with a severe allergy to onions, his struggle continues. He often has to turn down a hot meal or sandwich because of his dietary restrictions.
Another result of COVID restrictions is the demand for accessible public restrooms. In years past, free bathrooms were available in Montpelier’s city center. Now, because of Covid, many downtown stores have adopted new bathroom policies limiting use to paying customers.
Anne Waston, mayor of Montpelier, explained that there are two solutions the city could implement to solve the issue of public bathroom availability.
“The city could just rent more porta potties… I don’t know how many thousands of dollars that would cost,” she said. “The second possibility is contracting with someone in the downtown to keep bathrooms open.”
The issue with these plans is both are costly, and after numerous unanticipated costs this year, it is difficult to come up with funding. Another city project would have to be postponed and deciding what gets put off is a challenge.
Ken Russell is the director of Another Way, a local nonprofit that supports the housing-insecure population. After being forced to close during the spring, Another Way has tirelessly worked to continue to work with the needs of the housing insecure. Russell described the outdoor seating area and other new changes to accommodate Covid restrictions. He has worked nonstop during the pandemic helping to formulate new solutions, such as motel vouchers.
“There is something very sobering about seeing the humanity in all of this,” he said. “To be face to face with folks who are having a tough time.”
Just months before, Another Way provided the man at the intersection with a hotel voucher, a warm bed and four walls. But, after only two weeks he was forced to leave.
The man had struggled with addictions for years until receiving support in 2019. Just months sober, the abundance of drug use around him was testing his abstinence.
“Anytime I went outside, there would be some use,” he said. “You smelled crack walking down the hallways.”
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His choice to be in recovery left him housing insecure once more. He described spending less than $2 every couple hours on a cup of coffee, the heat of the cup becoming a surrogate handwarmer.
“The list for the shelter is so long,” he said. “I was told, even if everything went as planned, I wouldn’t be in there until next summer.”