Manchester officials call on state to freeze emergency housing program at local motels


A sign indicates the offices of the city of Manchester. Courtesy photo

Manchester city officials have called on the state to no longer place people enrolled in the state’s emergency housing program in motels across the city, citing a lack of resources available to run the program.

On social media, officials’ remarks drew criticism from residents asking where homeless people would otherwise go.

At the start of the pandemic, Vermont designed the program – which houses people who need shelter in motels and hotels across the state – as an alternative to homeless shelters, where social distancing does not exist. is not possible. Now, Bennington County’s accommodation establishments have reached capacity and the state has sent people who typically live in Bennington and Rutland in Manchester, where hotels abound.

Around 120 homeless people now live in five motels in Manchester. City Manager John O’Keefe said this equates to almost 3% of Manchester’s population, a higher percentage than other places involved in the state program, such as Burlington and Bennington.

“This is the main concern,” he said.

In an interview, he said Manchester does not have public transport or social service programs, and this is a challenge for people who have lived in motels for months and are cut off from essential supports.

He said Manchester is now home to a similar number of people as Bennington, a city three times the size.

According to Tricia Tyo, deputy commissioner of economic services in the Department of Children and Families, there is nowhere else to send those in need of shelter.

“The numbers are due to capacity, everywhere,” Tyo said. “Where we have people placed, that’s where we have hotels. Manchester has a lot of hotels.

Tyo said many of the people staying at Manchester motels are residents of Rutland and Bennington, but there are no rooms available in the two communities. She hopes to see capacity open up in those two places and has agreed with city officials that it would be best not to send people to Manchester when their lives are concentrated in other cities.

“A lot of people are tied to the services in Bennington, or their kids go to school in Bennington,” she said. “So we would prefer them to be at Bennington, but due to capacity issues there was availability in Manchester. We don’t want to develop this further.

The program places people at the Chalet, Econolodge, Four Winds, Palmer House and Weathervane. O’Keefe also said the nine-member Manchester Police Service has received a 1,600% increase in its call volume to these locations since the start of the program, and arrests have also increased significantly. . The incidents involved narcotics, break-ins and a situation involving firearms.

“When a number comes out and it looks weird, you double-check it,” O’Keefe said. “1600 seemed like a big number to me, so I went back and checked it three times, and it’s 1600.”

VTDigger was unable to reach Manchester Police Chief Patrick Owens on Friday afternoon.

City officials have also expressed concern over conditions at the motels, noting that children and families have limited space and amenities.

“We see a 400 square foot apartment with more than two people,” O’Keefe told VTDigger. “This means that each person at that location has a 10 by 10 box which is their personal space, and which includes the bathroom.”

Main Street in Manchester last July. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

In a Jan. 25 letter to the Social Services Agency, city officials said they had not been told Manchester motels would house those enrolled in the program, which “had a very big impact. significant on Manchester City Services and represents a real cost moving from your program and from the State to the City of Manchester. “

The same letter posed a number of questions, including whether the department could ensure “appropriate levels of social services needed by those housed in Manchester under this program” and whether the program could help fund local emergency services. .

He also asked what authority the department has to “house Vermonters in motel units, which surely constitute substandard housing, and certainly do not meet the minimum requirements for housing units as set out in our zoning regulations?” “

Tyo said municipalities and state law enforcement agencies have expressed similar concerns about an increase in calls and criminal activity.

“These are calls that people would answer no matter where someone lives,” Tyo said. “It could be in a homeless camp, it could be at a friend’s house. If they needed law enforcement, or if they needed help or an ambulance, they would need it anywhere in the community. “

“The number of people in Manchester hotels is probably no different than the number of people in Manchester hotels on weekends. It’s just a different population, ”Tyo said. “He says 3% of the population – well, that’s probably true when the horse show comes up, or when an event happens in town. This is what accommodation establishments are used for; it’s just the length of time that worries most municipalities.

Affordable access to Manchester

Critics have taken to social media since the Manchester Journal wrote about the remarks by city officials on Wednesday.

O’Keefe had criticized the program as a whole at a recent selection committee meeting, saying “it’s a bad idea and we shouldn’t be complicit.”

Some said Manchester should strive to provide social services and more affordable housing.

“Wake up rich Manchester elite! A commentator wrote on the Journal’s Facebook page. “We’ve had a drug problem for some time. Instead of showing people who are already oppressed, let’s strategize on how we can create more housing for low-income families.

John o'keefe
John O’Keefe, City Manager of Manchester. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger

O’Keefe told VTDigger he was critical of the lack of additional support provided to cities and people participating in the program. Police recently arrested a person who possessed cocaine and heroin, O’Keefe said, and that person returned to the hotel.

“It seems like this person should probably be on a program or give them the option to go to a different program that could be more structured,” he said. “Not a prison, but a place where there is more surveillance.”

Manchester changed its zoning laws several years ago to allow converted motels, suitable for long-term residents, to be used for housing. O’Keefe said a 40-unit motel turned into an apartment complex has stalled due to the Bill 250 clearance processes related to the building’s water supply.

Another 20 units will soon be built near city offices, and officials hope to use Covid relief money to expand the sewage system, which would allow more affordable housing to be built.

O’Keefe said he would like to see the state devote resources to more permanent opportunities for additional affordable housing, rather than perpetuating the motel program.

“Manchester is a city that is ready to participate,” said O’Keefe. “But the level at which we are asked to participate unintentionally, and the burden on a small town with a small police department, becomes too great.”

Tyo said the department’s ability to freeze the program in Manchester, so that additional people are not enrolled, will depend on capacity in other locations.

“We hear Manchester’s concerns and we know it has been a struggle for the community,” she said. “We would like to no longer place people in Manchester, but that depends on what happens in the longer term with the program. “

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