On March 20, 2024

Rutland scrambled to setup an emergency shelter for homeless transitioning out of hotels

Shelters, in Rutland and statewide, see minimal use

By Katy Savage and Polly Mikula

A sudden and unexpected state decision to move up to 100 homeless people staying in hotels to a temporary shelter in downtown Rutland caused chaos in the city and resulted in a lawsuit from Vermont Legal Aid.

But after all the consternation about unsheltered people having a high impact on the downtown area, only four individuals showed up at the shelter over the weekend.

But the state’s abrupt mandates left a bitter aftertaste in the city.

“They set a firestorm in places that didn’t need to be there,” Alderman Bob Gillam, Jr. said at a Board of Aldermen meeting Monday, March 18.

It all started Wednesday, March 13, when Rutland Mayor Mike Doenges received a call from the state notifying him that the state required a location in Rutland to accommodate 100 beds for an overnight emergency shelter as the hotel general assistance program was ending Friday, March 15. In other words, the people who received a voucher to stay at hotels needed to prove they had a qualifying vulnerability in order to hang onto their rooms for a few more months, or leave.

Rutland was to be one of four temporary shelters across the state set up to serve the nearly 500 people the state said would no longer be eligible for the hotel vouchers. Doenges said projections indicated that Rutland should expect 86 people to utilize its temporary shelter, which would be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for no more than seven days.

“These shelters open tonight to give people more time to seek alternate housing or shelter, and for state and community partners to connect with those looking for additional services,” Nya Pike, a public information officer at the Dept. of Children and Families (DCF), said in a press release Friday.

Pike said National Guard members, medical professionals and security personnel would staff each shelter.

DCF identified the Asa Bloomer Building on Merchants Row as the most viable location, despite Doenges’ suggestions for alternatives, which included the state use the former Diamond Run Mall, FEMA support trailers, the Howe Center or the Vermont State Fairgrounds.

Doenges also tried to buy time by requiring the state obtain a zoning permit.

City Zoning Administrator Andrew Strniste said Monday afternoon that he was still waiting to hear from the state about the permit.

“The state essentially on Friday said that they were going to get back to me and I have not heard since,” Strniste said.

“Downtown’s a tough location,” Doenges said. “For the safety and security of the people that would be staying here, it’s not designed to house people at all.”

Doenges also said a fire inspector looked at the Asa Bloomer Building on Friday night and found the building could only house up to 46 people.

“While I acknowledge that the state has control over this property, I have voiced my concerns that this solution is not suitable for our community,” wrote Doenges on Instagram, March 14. “The state has asserted its right to use this space as they see fit under Vermont law, leaving the city with limited options… In response to this situation and recognizing the need for swift action, the City of Rutland is gearing up for this transition and stands ready to offer support where possible. Our assistance will extend beyond those leaving the hotels; we aim to support our citizens, downtown property and business owners, and the community as a whole. To this end, I have instructed Rutland City Police Department to be prepared for the demand … Our priority is to maintain clear and safe downtown sidewalks and ensure accessibility to all patrons.”

The scramble, however, was met with limited need. On Friday, the Asa Bloomer building hosted just a few individuals, with two staying overnight Friday and Saturday, and three on Sunday night. And a similar lack of need was seen statewide with only a tiny fraction of the beds set up put to use. At the shelter in Brattleboro, not a single person showed up and in Berlin just one person did on Saturday. Burlington saw the most use with 10 people Sunday night, seven on Saturday, and three on Friday.

Courtesy City of Rutland
The Asa Bloomer building in downtown Rutland was one of four emergency shelters designated by the state to accommodate unhoused Vermonters who no longer qualified to remain in hotels after Friday, March 15. The shelter was only utilized by a few.

Doenges said Monday he was still looking for an alternate location, despite the low number of unsheltered people.

It’s unclear exactly if the temporary state shelters will remain open the full seven days, given their limited use.

Many service providers, organizations and advocates helped smooth the transition for vulnerable Vermonters in the motel program in the weeks leading up to the March 15 deadline. Some helped them fill out new disability waivers that could merit them a longer stay.

End Homelessness Vermont helped 110 people across the state on Friday, according to Brenda Siegel, head of the organization.

“Some hotel owners extended shelter without vouchers,” Doenges added. They did that “for two primary reasons: to allow more time for individuals to explore additional eligibility for disability qualification, and to offer temporary accommodation while individuals seek alternative shelter options. As we gather more data, we’ll gain a clearer picture of shelter utilization in the coming days,” he said.

The low numbers at the shelters, however, could also mean an unknown number of people are now sleeping outside.

Vermont Legal Aid filed a lawsuit against the state asking a court to stop the state from making people leave the hotels.

Rebecca Plummer, an attorney from Vermont Legal Aid, sent Chris Winters, DCF commissioner, an email March 14, asking him to extend the deadline to April 15.

“To pretend that March 15 is a hard and fast deadline requiring massive disruption and Vermont Emergency Management and National Guard intervention is to manufacture a crisis and cause an inhumane, traumatic displacement that does not need to occur,” Plummer wrote. 

While some advocates are promoting unsheltered people staying at hotels, Tom Donahue, the CEO at BROC Community Action, doesn’t see that as a long-term solution. 

“It’s not a solution to homelessness, because it’s not just about putting a roof over their head,” he said. “It’s not even meeting a respectable standard. It’s not what we should be condoning, and paying for.”

Donahue said his staff arrived at the Asa Bloomer Building at 6:30 a.m. Saturday to assist people with paperwork. He said there were just two homeless people on Friday night and two people on Saturday night.

Donahue agreed that the low numbers locally were in part due to advocates who helped people who remained qualified — including people with disabilities, older people and people with children — to stay at the hotels. 

He added that many homeless people prefer to spend the summer outside this time of year.

“It’s a transitional thing they do every year at this time,” he said.

Some may have also been deterred by law enforcement.

“They avoid structures where there are a lot of rules and regulations,” Donohue said. “They would be less inclined to go to a state office building with National Guard and law enforcement.”

With cold weather in the forecast, however, Donohue said more people could want to be back inside.

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