Are ‘pods’ the answer to ending chronic homelessness in Burlington?

Published: Jan. 3, 2022 at 6:00 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 3, 2022 at 7:31 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The homeless hotel program through the state of Vermont is meant as a last resort to keep people from sleeping outside during the cold winter months. But fixing the problem of homelessness requires more systemic solutions.

Last month, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger introduced a 10-point action plan dedicated to ending chronic homelessness and significantly increasing housing stock. One point in his plan was creating 30 pods as a low-barrier shelter.

The consensus from people involved in homeless work is that any low-barrier option that would help people stay out of the elements in a safer place than just camping outside would be beneficial.

However, the mayor is supposed to go to the City Council by the end of this month with more information on what these 30 pods or tiny homes would look like.

Burlington and the state of Vermont have both been working to address the housing and homeless crises with many different tactics, such as the homeless hotel program which was recently extended back in November after the pandemic exacerbated existing issues causing people to have unstable housing.

Burlington has struggled with homelessness for years. Most recently, the city dismantled the Sears Lane encampment in the South End out of concerns about safety and illegal activity occurring there.

Shortly afterward, Weinberger unveiled his 10-point action plan to address the many levels of housing issues in the city.

“The other homeless people, it’s sad. They’re frustrated because there’s not enough places. You can’t just sleep in the flowers, you’ll get woken up. They really just want a place to lay and be residents,” said Chuck Root who is homeless.

Root says there just aren’t enough different options for places to stay. He thinks 30 pods or tiny homes as a low barrier option would be extremely helpful.

We sent the mayor’s plan to the former director of the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, Jeff Kosistsky, who said he was excited that the plan is following the nation’s best practices.

He has experience working with tiny homes or pods as a low barrier option and says it’s important to know there’s no one size fits all solution, but it’s essential to have more housing built, more mental health and substance use services, as well.

“If your goal is to remove encampments in the city or address unsheltered homelessness in neighborhoods that are hard hit by that and you need to be flexible in how you use those resources and being tactical about how those pods are going to be used is going to be just as important as making sure they meet the needs of our unsheltered neighbors,” Kositsky said.

Pod low-barrier shelters have been popping up in cities around the nation to serve individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness. In Minneapolis, they’ve set up an indoor low-barrier shelter, with access to on-site housing, medical and security services. Avivo Village, as it’s called, has served 216 people with 34 moving on to permanent housing.

Here in Burlington, longtime homelessness expert and the executive director of COTS Rita Markley is excited about the potential of the 10-point plan, including the possibility of these pods, but she feels the plan’s promise of ending chronic homelessness by 2024 is too narrow of a goal and should look at all people struggling with homelessness no matter how long.

“Any initiative that attempts to create more housing opportunities is a good thing, especially when it’s for people who are homeless. I would just hope that we take a more expansive view and include families with children who are also homeless,” Markley said.

Now the exact shape that these pods will take and location are still up in the air. But a spokesperson for the city says the current vision is for them to operate like a low-barrier shelter with some sort of centralized restroom and shower complex.

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