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Montpelier considers allowing homeless to camp in city parks

Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 5:53 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Could public parks now be home to the homeless? That’s a discussion going on right now in Montpelier. The Capital City is looking to legalize camping on some public property, similar to a policy in Burlington.

Hundreds of Vermonters are no longer eligible for emergency housing through hotels and motels.

Facing an acute housing shortage, some may have to sleep on the streets.

“The public health emergency that is COVID has brought to light this more long-term public health emergency that people have been living in,” said Ken Russell, the chair of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force.

Russell says upward of 70 people may be out on the streets in Montpelier.

That’s why this week, the City Council will vote on whether to allow people to camp on city property and in parks.

The guidance is in response to a recent Ninth Circuit Court decision in Idaho prohibiting cities from punishing people who have nowhere else to go.

“If there’s no place else for them to turn to we can’t criminalize people or city people who are camping on public lands which, honestly, is something that’s been happening already,” Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete said.

However, there are security concerns from some. And there are questions of where people will seek sanitary facilities.

Social Service organizations are gearing up with new a new outreach coordinator through the Good Samaritan Haven.

“We don’t want this to become a law enforcement situation. Citing people out of homelessness isn’t going to work,” Montpelier City Manager Bill Frasier said.

City officials stress that the new policy isn’t a long-term solution to homelessness and that there will be no tolerance for crime.

But even if the policy passes, there’s still the looming threat of dangerously cold conditions this winter.

“When winter comes, people’s lives are really at stake and so the hope is that we can get people indoors before the winter and under some kind of roof,” Russell said.

There’s near-unanimous agreement that long-term housing is the solution. But how to pay for it, where and how to build remain issues.

Montpelier city officials say it will take a commitment from the Agency of Human Services and the Scott administration.

“Whether it’s providing more shelter beds, more services or more housing, those are all issues we as a state, a region and a community need to grapple with,” Frasier said.

In the meantime, for the proposed policy there are exceptions. People won’t be able to camp on school grounds, near private property or near a public path.

The Montpelier City Council is slated to vote on the measure Wednesday evening.

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