Man’s Trespassing Charge Reveals Glitch in Aiding Homeless
Matthew Staley is escorted out of Windsor District Court yesterday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Leonard Brown, Executive Director of the Bugbee Senior Center In White River Junction, talks about the police finding a homeless man in the center after hours. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
White River Junction — While many people welcomed 2013 in company of family or friends on Monday night — inside a crowded bar, or a cozy living room, perhaps — Matthew Staley walked around White River Junction homeless. He trudged up North Main Street through the freezing cold, jimmied open a lock on a side door at the Bugbee Senior Center, and for a few minutes before police arrested him, presumably enjoyed a quiet moment of warmth.
Staley took nothing, damaged nothing, and harmed no one, but his arrest on trespassing charges provided a sad demonstration of difficulties of the homeless during winter, and perhaps illustrated a small hole in the local safety net — Staley, whom police had dealt with a few times in recent weeks, could have had a place to go on Monday night.
“He kept getting moved along and finally it turned into a trespass,” Hartford Police Capt. Brad Vail said. “There was no safety issue. He needs help. We do what we can. We arrested him because we had to. The back end of that was he would have a place to stay (in prison) but we didn’t do it for that reason. We did it because we had no choice.”
In Windsor Superior Court yesterday, Staley, 37, was slated to accept a plea deal that would allow him to be set free with credit for the nearly 48 hours he has already spent in prison.
But after he struggled to answer basic questions from a judge, the deal was scrapped, and Staley was ordered to undergo a competency evaluation. Staley, who had spent the previous two nights in Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., after being unable to post $1,000 bail, was then released without having to post bail.
“The problem is the court is not sure (Staley) has a clear understanding of the proceedings today,” Judge Robert Gerety said.
After the hearing, both Staley and his public defender, Dan Stevens, declined to answer questions. It was unclear where Staley stayed last night, though officials said they were working on finding him a place.
Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand said officials had little choice but to file the charge against Staley, even if they have no desire to see him punished.
“I don’t think we want to encourage anyone to randomly enter buildings they aren’t supposed to,” Sand said. “What if it was someone’s house? One can feel compassion for people who are homeless, but that shouldn’t create a basis for entering buildings they aren’t authorized to enter. It is sad and unfortunate, the criminal justice system is a blunt instrument for coping with social deficiencies, but we are often at the end of that line.”
Vail said police in recent weeks had been asked to remove Staley from the McDonald’s in West Lebanon after he lingered for too long, and court records indicate that Staley has also been ordered to stay away from The Junction teen center and Evans Expressmart in Hartford. But Staley, who does not appear to have any Upper Valley ties, has never confronted anyone or caused a disruption, Vail said.
Staley has no serious criminal record, but had been arrested for unlawful trespass in Washington County in March 2012 and January 2012, and in Chittenden County in 2008.
Bugbee Senior Center Executive Director Leonard Brown said that Staley, who was inside for less than an hour, left behind a few odd items, including chicken bones and old cigarette butts, and dragged some snow and salt inside, but stole nothing and did not do any damage.
“Poor guy, probably got what he was looking for — a warm spot,” Brown said yesterday. “Your heart goes out to the guy. Obviously, he was hurting.”
Vail said that, after encountering Staley earlier in the day walking around Hartford, police officers followed protocols and called 211, a social service hotline for anyone seeking assistance for people in need. While 211 officials can often find a bed or support for people, Vail said that, on New Year’s Eve, his officers were told there was no help available for Staley.
“They called 211 to seek shelter, unfortunately they didn’t have any rooms or money available, so we had to move him along,” Vail said.
The Haven, the Hartford agency that runs shelters for both homeless families and singles, is fully booked. Nonetheless, Executive Director Sara Kobylenski said that Staley should have been given a place to stay on Monday night, and blamed a “communication glitch.” The Haven has both staffers and administrators on call, and protocols where it can find a place for someone to stay, even if, like Monday night, their shelters are at capacity.
“There may have been a glitch on New Year’s Eve. I think we have a pretty good system in our community,” Kobylenski said. “It is vulnerable to communication glitches and it seems that there was a communication glitch in this instance, but that was situational and not systemic.”
It was not the only part of the case that has not gone smoothly.
Staley’s appearance in Windsor Superior Court yesterday was supposed to be the most straightforward on the court docket. He would plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unlawful, receive credit for the time he spent in prison, and be released — case closed.
Before the deal could be finalized, Gerety began asking a series of standard questions, posed before every plea deal, inquiring whether Staley understood the legal process. Whereas most defendants hurriedly answer “yes,” to the judge’s questions, Staley took several seconds before answering “yes, your honor,” to Gerety’s initial questions.
He stumbled when asked if he approved of his lawyer’s work — Staley seemed to think his relationship with Stevens, a public defender, would last beyond his case — and a recess was called. When the hearing resumed, Staley again seemed confused, and Gerety scrapped the deal, for now, pending an evaluation by mental health experts.
A couple minutes later, Staley and Stevens walked out of the courthouse as they presumably tried to find Staley a place to go.
Mark Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3304.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction ran in the Friday, Jan. 4 edition of the Valley News:
Upper Valley Haven Executive Director Sara Kobylenski's last name was misspelled in a story in Thursday's edition.