Smaller Vt. towns now coping with unhoused population

Published: Jul. 28, 2023 at 3:31 PM EDT
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ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - Homelessness is often most evident in Vermont’s more urban areas like Burlington and Rutland. But officials in smaller towns like St. Johnsbury say they have also seen an uptick in the unhoused since the state’s emergency hotel-motel voucher program ended for many earlier this summer.

“This is all pandemic. Since the pandemic, the homelessness has really picked up,” said Steve Kline, a longtime St. Johnsbury resident. He says he’s concerned because he’s been seeing more and more homeless people downtown. “Many times they will be around the corner by the plex over there or sitting by the town center here. There’s a park bench out there or they will go down by the river.”

Town Manager Chad Whitehead says St. Johnsbury has never had a visible homeless problem but that more of them are now spending their days at the welcome center. “This is happening across the entire state. I have talked with numerous town managers, and many population centers have been having this issue. We are concerned for the people experiencing homelessness. If it becomes to the point where our police department is involved, that means something has already gone wrong,” Whitehead said.

St. Johnbury Police Chief Timothy Page says there has been a two-fold increase in crimes like shoplifting and trespassing and finding a solution has been difficult. “We go someplace that a homeless person has encamped, for example. So, we have to have them removed but we have nowhere to send them, so we ask them, tell them they have to leave. So, basically, it’s just repetitive,” he said.

Human service agencies like Rural Edge, Northeast Kingdom Community Action, and Northeast Kingdom Human Services are working together to find a place for people to go, but it will be months before that option could be available.

“There is a plan in place to develop an emergency shelter for those who are experiencing homelessness. Funding applications are in. This would be 24 hours a day,” said Patrick Shattuck with Rural Edge.

The plan is to put the new shelter at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, but officials won’t know much more until late September.

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