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Monday, May 20, 2024

Rising homelessness in Middlebury spurs community response

As the homeless population in Middlebury has grown in recent months, a group of local human services providers, business people and public safety officials haves re-established the Middlebury Homeless Task Force. The group was originally created to combat homelessness in the area about four years ago, but had not been active until this month since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The current official count of the unhoused population of Addison County is approximately 146 individuals, according to Heidi Lacey, director of the Charter House Coalition, a 501c3 organization that has a warming shelter and provides community suppers in Middlebury. There are currently seven to ten individuals camping under the Cross Street Bridge bridge off Bakery Lane in downtown Middlebury.  

One possible cause of recent rising rates of homelessness in Middlebury is the expiration of Vermont’s hotel voucher program in June. Unhoused people were previously able to live in hotels across the state through this program, but the ending of state budget funding for it left a number of people living on the street, according to a reporting from the Addison Independent. Another potential explanation may be that individuals from nearby Washington County who were displaced by the July flooding are now seeking housing in Addison County shelters, according to Lacey’s statements at a recent Middlebury selectboard meeting

At the most recent Town of Middlebury selectboard meeting on Oct. 10, a number of business owners, leaders of housing and social work organizations spoke on homelessness in Middlebury. 

Lacey said that organizations providing mental health support and food are going out and responding to homeless individuals frequently. Providers such as Charter House have a current schedule of street outreach five to six days a week. 

This street outreach allows social services to learn about homeless individuals’ backgrounds and needs, as well as to build trust between them, Lacey said. Outreach can help advocates understand if an individual does not want to be in a shelter or if they are using available resources, and it gives them a chance to deliver bags of “essentials” to the unhoused, according to Addison Independent reporting

Another key point of discussion at the October selectboard meeting was recent acts of vandalism in Middlebury, which have largely been due to one woman. Middlebury Police Chief Jason Covey and Lacey stressed the distinction between the encampment under the bridge and the vandalism. “Just like us, they just want to be safe, and they don’t want to be seen as vandals or criminals,” she said. 

The woman’s acts of vandalism have included smashing windows and damaging cars, as town residents described at the meeting. She is not welcome by the community under the bridge, many of whom have been there for a longer period of time and predate the incidents of vandalism.  

The woman has had 78 involvements with Vermont law enforcement thus far in 2023. Twenty-two of those interactions took place within a three-week period ending on Oct. 10. In each of the seven times she has been arrested by the Middlebury Police Department, a judge has ordered her to be released, Covey said in the meeting.

None of the incidents involving this woman fall into the categories of crimes that can set bail, according to Eva Vekos, the Addison County state’s attorney. Vekos said the woman could receive up to two years in jail if convicted, but that the attorney has requested a competency evaluation and it may be determined that she is suffering a mental illness, which would prevent her from going to trial. 

Some downtown businesses expressed worry about the effects of vandalism on the local economy, particularly after other recent disruptions caused by construction and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A window and car in the parking lot at Haymaker Bun Company in downtown Middlebury were shattered recently. 

“The uptick in crime and homelessness aren’t necessarily connected,” Caroline Corrente, owner of Haymaker Bun Company told The Campus. “People are lumping those together, and it’s not necessarily the same thing.” 

Corrente said she wants Middlebury residents to continue coming to local businesses, while also taking the vandalism as seriously as if it were their own front door being smashed. Recognizing that long-term solutions are necessary, Corrente also suggested a town monetary fund to support businesses navigating the impacts of this vandalism in the short term. 

Several individuals have occupied the area under the Cross Street Bridge from morning to nightdark for a year or two but did not cause any serious problems, Rick Buck, owner of Mister Up’s Restaurant & Pub, located next to the bridge, said at the select board meeting. Buck stated that more people are now occupying this area by the river, and living there for 24 hours a day, instead of just during daylight hours, which are recent developments that are negatively impacting his business, as well as the safety of customers and employees. 

The Addison Independent visited the encampment on Oct. 9 and spoke with a man living there who identified himself as Kenneth. Kenneth said he has been living under the bridge on and off for two years, and lamented the lack of affordable housing in the area. He also said that most of his fellow campers were good people who reject violence and vandalism — “We are people; we are human beings,” Kenneth told the Addison Independent. 

The police department has received 24 calls relating to the encampment under the bridge since May 1, Covey said at the selectboard meeting. The department has not made any arrests from those calls, however, as the encampment is on public property, so the campers have a constitutional right to be there, Covey added. 

Organizations in Middlebury and Addison County that more broadly aimed at meeting the needs of the unhoused include the Charter House Coalition, Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (H.O.P.E.), Turning Point Center of Addison County, Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, United Way of Addison County and Counseling Services of Addison County (CSAC). 

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According to Rachel Lee Cummings, executive director of CSAC, “we are working to ensure people have more low-barrier access to services.” A major provider of mental health services in Addison County, CSAC has recently expanded Interlude, its peer-run urgent care initiative, as well as rapid access to its Adult Mental Health program. Cummings added that the organization plans to roll out Mobile Crisis services in the next year. 

“More mental health and SUD [substance use disorder] recovery services are needed across the population, regardless of housing status,” Cummings wrote. “It's common for homelessness to be associated with mental health challenges, and service providers like CSAC play a crucial role in addressing the mental health needs of both housed and homeless individuals.”

Another organization working to address homelessness in the area is Addison Housing Works — a non-profit that operates over 750 units of permanently affordable housing in Addison County. 

CSAC and Addison Housing Works are both a part of the Addison County Housing Coalition, which aims to coordinate services and push for policies to bring more affordable housing to homeless populations, while also working to avoid stigmatizing these vulnerable populations, Cumings said.

According to Elise Shanbacker, executive director of Addison Housing Works, the coalition is working closely with the town of Middlebury and the police department to offer services to unhoused people in the area. “There are also groups that meet weekly and monthly for case management and conferencing, service coordination, and to strategize around advocacy and policy that will bring more affordable housing and services to our community,” Shanbacker wrote in an email to The Campus.

Addison Housing Works recently opened 20 affordable apartments in Bristol, Vt., four of which are now occupied by formerly unhoused individuals and families. “We are striving to develop more permanently affordable apartments while also managing and maintaining the resources we have,” Shanbacker wrote. 

Shanbacker and Cummings both emphasized that unaffordable housing is the largest driver of homelessness in the Middlebury area. “We can support more housing in our communities through zoning and with targeted investments in nonprofit housing organizations,” Shanbacker wrote. 

The Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), a civic organization focused on supporting local businesses in Middlebury, is currently a part of the Middlebury Homelessness Task Force. Alongside the Middlebury Police Department and social services, they collected impact statements from businesses about homelessness in town to send to representatives in Montpelier as well as the State Attorney’s Office, the Middlebury town manager, and select board members, executive director Karen Duguay wrote in an email to The Campus. 

“Recently the [Better Middlebury Partnership] has had to support businesses through a recent uptick in vandalism, break-ins and public safety concerns so our role within this discussion is to represent the business' voices and work to continue to preserve our community's economic vibrancy and public safety,” Duguay wrote. “It makes sense that all of us work together to ensure that Middlebury is a safe and economically healthy place where all of our community members have access to resources.

The Middlebury Police Department also upped their presence downtown in response to business requests, Covey said at the selectboard meeting. 

Homelessness is an issue nationwide, but is especially prevalent in Vermont. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Vermont has the second highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the country. The department of housing and urban development estimates that 43.1 out of every 10,000 Vermonters are unhoused. 

Duguay and other Middlebury residents involved with the recently reinvigorated Homelessness Task Force stressed that the town remains committed to helping the homeless.

Julia Pepper

Julia Pepper '24 (she/her) is the Senior Local Editor. 

She previously served as a Local Editor. She is a Psychology major and French minor. This past spring she studied in Paris. She spent the summer interning at home in New York City, putting her journalistic cold calling skills to use at her internship doing outreach with senior citizens. In her free time she enjoys reading and petting cats.