Editorial: Shelter would be needed gift

Published: 05-23-2023 9:50 AM

There probably is no such thing as a perfect location for a homeless shelter, but the old 25,000 Gifts & Woolens building in White River Junction appears to check a lot of boxes on any list of desirable qualities.

Sitting on a 4.5-acre lot, it’s vacant, structurally sound and big enough at 8,400 square feet to house a 20-bed low-barrier shelter, according to Michael Redmond, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, which is considering the site. Relatively few homes and businesses are nearby on that section of North Main Street; there are sidewalks and Advance Transit bus service; the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Haven’s main campus, which offer needed services, aren’t too far away.

Redmond told our colleague John Lippman that the project is still in the “exploratory phase.” Having been previously burned by neighborhood opposition to locating the emergency shelter on the Haven’s existing campus on Hartford Avenue, Redmond is right to proceed cautiously.

Redmond also is reaching out to the community for comment before bringing a formal proposal forward, something the Haven unfortunately failed to do adequately in its earlier effort. Further opportunities to be heard are scheduled for June 5 and 6 at the Bugbee Senior Center; we urge anyone with anything to say to attend those meetings, as their comments could help shape the proposal.

What seems very clear is that such a shelter — which takes in virtually anyone who needs a bed, including those with active addictions — is urgently needed. That’s doubly true now that the state of Vermont is winding down its pandemic-era program that used federal relief money to house homeless people in hotels and motels for months at a time.

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That program was very expensive and rife with problems, as documented in an investigation published by the VtDigger news site in March. It cost $166 million between March 2020 and December 2022, with the hotels and motels pretty much naming their own price for much of the time. Meanwhile the conditions in the rooms occupied by those being sheltered were too often unhealthy and unsafe. And the program was a Band-Aid, as it did nothing to permanently ameliorate the general problem of homelessness.

Gov. Phil Scott and a big majority of the Legislature agree that the program, which costs about $8 million a month, is simply too expensive to be continued with state funds. But they have provided no very good answer to the pertinent question of what happens next to the estimated 2,500 people — including nearly 600 children — who will be turned out on the streets amid a worsening housing crisis that virtually guarantees that existing shelters are already full.

Jenney Samuelson, the secretary of human services, says she expects some number of them to “self-resolve” their impending lack of shelter. Whatever that means, we guess that the number will be small. We note that the Legislature did include in the budget $12.5 million to aid local service providers who work with the homeless — with the suggestion that some of it be spent on camping fees and equipment!

For all its failings, the motel program at least provided a roof over their heads, which in most cases was better than imposing on friends or family, living out of a car, or trying to find a place to camp out without being rousted by the authorities.

The federal government reported last winter that Vermont had the second-highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the country in 2022 at 43.1 per every 10,000 residents, behind only California. But it also had the lowest rate of unhoused people living outdoors at less than 2%. That undoubtedly was largely because of the emergency motel housing program.

To its credit, state government is making needed investments in increasing Vermont’s stock of affordable housing. The budget passed by the Legislature this month devotes $60 million to that effort. But getting more housing in the construction pipeline does not address the homelessness crisis Vermont is experiencing now. Nor will a bigger supply of permanent housing by itself fully address homelessness when new units do come online.

What’s needed is for state government to recognize the emergency for what it is and forge a comprehensive long-term strategy for reducing the homeless population to an irreducible minimum, while at the same time making provision for immediate, short-term sheltering of the unhoused. For instance, might it be possible to replicate statewide Burlington’s Elmwood community of 30 small shelters commonly referred to as “pods”? It cost $1.6 million and can house up to 35 people.

Any long-term effort will require across-the-board cooperation and coordination among housing agencies, medical and mental health professionals, the criminal justice system, law enforcement personnel, addiction counselors, domestic violence prevention experts, anti-hunger workers and probably many others we haven’t thought of. Most of all, it will require a sense of urgency and purpose, because the current homelessness situation in Vermont is a national embarrassment and a living rebuke to the state’s liberal pretensions.