Though limited, RVs could provide the best option for winter shelter
By Ethan Weinstein
Keith wasn’t home on Sept. 8 when two people, introducing themselves as friends of Simon Dennis, walked into his campsite off A Street in White River Junction. His buddy Mike was around though, and he let the strangers walk through camp, no matter how strange their presence seemed. After all, a friend of Dennis’s was a friend of Mike’s — a friend of any unhoused person in White River Junction, as far as he was concerned.
Later that day, a 15-minute video taken by those two strangers was posted in the Facebook group What’s Up Hartford VT. It showed Keith’s hut, a cabin built of polystyrene foam, constructed in part by Dennis, the founder of the White River Junction nonprofit the Center for Transformational Practice. The two interlopers, cellphone video rolling, expressed concerns about the hut’s safety, its ventilation, and its proximity to overhead wires. And they derided Simon Dennis, the man responsible for the 6-by-10 foot cabin, painted green, with a wooden door, a lock and a window.
The fallout from the video came to a head at Hartford’s Sept. 21 Select Board meeting. The two people who entered the A Street camp — Wayne Kendall and Heidi Duto — as well as Sue Ellen Parmenter, addressed the board during public comment.
As Duto took to the lectern, she fiddled with her necklace, visibly uneasy. Addressing her series of questions to Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis, she began, “I would like to know when the Select Board and the town manager is going to uphold the laws of this town to make the people of this town safe.”
“I feel really uncomfortable with everything…” Yarlott-Davis started.
“I would just like to know…when you’re going to uphold the laws and enforce the laws,” interrupted Duto.
Attempting to diffuse the tension — or at least more thinly spread Duto’s frustration — Board Chair Dan Fraser interjected.
Duto cut him off, too.
“I go out of my way to help people that are homeless … I also do not feel safe in my own home. Do you?”
“Usually I do, yeah,” responded Fraser.
Kendall and Parmenter took the podium presenting much the same dissonance. On the one hand, they cared deeply about the homeless, they asured the audience. They even believed Dennis’s heart was in the right place with his unpermitted structures. But trumping those sentiments was the rule of law, and Dennis’s disregard for it. His shelters were illegal and unsafe, they said. End of discussion.
Given the opportunity to speak, Dennis did not hem and haw.
“Here in Hartford, we have people in tents in winter. That is unacceptable.”
A month after Duto and Kendall walked into his camp, Keith was sitting out front of the green hut that used to be his nightly home. His white beard is yellowed from the elements, and as he spoke, his electric-blue eyes fixed in the distance, meeting mine only for emphasis. Alongside him stood Tif, his partner of 10 years.
After the uproar initiated by the Facebook video, Keith’s life has been unsettled — even more than usual. The town of Hartford informed Great River Hydro, the landowners of Keith’s campsite, about his presence. They filed a trespassing order. The police came. Keith was forced to leave.
That strip of land adjacent to the railroad tracks had been Keith’s home for 15 months. In that time, Keith had made it work. He could heat his hut in five minutes with a propane heater. He walked down the hill to the Connecticut River to fish. He made friends with the employees of the industrial park right over the tracks. They let him get water. He had easy access to the bus. Best of all, the spot was quiet — except, of course, for the train. But Keith didn’t have to worry about junkies and drunks, and until recently, nosy neighbors.
He was left alone, in peace. And he liked that.
But that all changed last month. Since the video, Keith has had rocks thrown at him, he’s been chased. With nowhere to go, he’s grown desperate, depressed. The week before I spoke to him, he told me that he’d bought some beer and walked under a bridge to the banks of the White River. Unsure where he’d sleep, he contemplated ending it. Just walking into the river, drowning. Thank god a friend saw him, offered him company, talked him down.
“I got to that point, I was all stressed. She couldn’t even deal with me,” Keith said, motioning toward Tif.
Tif lives in subsidized housing in South Royalton. She takes the bus to see Keith about once a month, checks up on him, shops in West Lebanon. The relative stability of her housing is new to her. Unhoused off and on since a toddler, Tif has experienced all kinds of impermanent solutions: living in cars, motels, foster homes. Scumbag slumlords who sexually harassed her (along with every other female tenant). With her health problems — both physical and mental — she struggles with camping.
Tif talked fast, rattling off facts and anecdotes about the realities of being unhoused in the Upper Valley. A life unmoored has made her a reluctant expert. So, when Tif credits Simon Dennis with keeping Keith alive, with helping Hartford’s homeless as much as anyone, her words come across as more authentic than others’ more distant from that reality.
“If Keith had lived in a tent last year, he would have died. And that’s what Simon’s trying to prevent,” she summarized.
In her mind, the concerns Parmenter, Kendall and Duto raised are in bad faith. Dennis tested the ventilation of Keith’s cabin with a carbon monoxide detector. The health inspector had seen the campsite, known it was free of serious hazards like needles, standing water and excrement.
Tif contends that the whole drama wasn’t about caring for the homeless, it was personal. “They just want to drag Simon through the mud,” Tif said.
Keith concurs. “Even the cops came down here. I said, ‘This is probably the cleanest campsite you’ve seen along the river.’ They agreed.”
Hartford Police treated Keith’s patch of woods as his residence. He’d cleared it, removed the brush and leaves to create a safe fire pit, dug irrigation ditches to remove standing water. Sometimes he burned his trash, other times he threw it out — with permission — in the dumpsters across the tracks.
“What bothers me is that the town is stereotyping us, trying to put us all in one category,” Keith said. He does not use drugs and has not recently gotten into trouble with the law. Living in his hut was an effort to avoid all that.
But living in the woods was not Keith’s first option. Before the pandemic, he and Tif were living in the Shady Lawn motel in Hartford. Keith worked landscaping and snow removal, earning enough money to pay for their room week by week.
“But the neighbors we had were into the meth and drugs, and they had people in and out of there all night,” Tif remembered.
She and Keith struggled to sleep. Fights broke out at all hours. Once, amidst a soured drug deal, one tenant threw another through the window of their room. And the amenities weren’t any better — ratty beds with the springs poking through, an unhelpful facilities’ manager.
“Why bother to pay all that money just to not be able to sleep all night?” Tif said.
To be unhoused is to slip between the cracks. I heard this from every person I talked to. To not qualify for disability, or for a housing voucher, or to not get into a shelter, it can all feel arbitrary. Coupled with the irregularity of life unhoused — days blending together, time a distant thought — despair sets in.
Part of slipping between the cracks is being uncounted. There are about 22 unsheltered people in Hartford according to Dennis, but he can’t be sure. He doesn’t know how many of Hartford’s unsheltered have died during Covid. He knows of someone who died in January. Someone died in February. Someone died in March. Someone died in April. Someone died last week.
The state brought dozens of unhoused people to Hartford’s motels because of the proximity of social services, Dennis said. The Upper Valley Haven — a nonprofit supporting the homeless — provides shelter to some, food to more, and community support to others. West Lebanon, across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, has a methadone clinic. People struggling with substance use come from all over to be near that rehab center.
In December 2020, the Hartford Select Board created the ad hoc committee on emergency shelter to investigate possible solutions to providing shelter for the town’s unhoused. The committee considered hundreds of properties for a potential semi-permanent encampment. For a variety of reasons — proximity to neighborhoods, potential for flooding, uncooperative landowners — they have not found a suitable site.
And so, amidst the futile search, Dennis has taken it upon himself to help create shelters for the unsheltered. They are unpermitted, illegal. Last winter, Dennis provided building materials, allowing a few people to build their own shelters, 6-by-10 foot huts, just like Keith’s.
For a time, the structures kept people out of tents. Living in a tent in winter is not safe, to say the least. First, one must worry about staying warm. To prevent freezing to death, people use propane heaters. If knocked over, the heaters can quickly send a tent up in flames. Plus, tents provide poor ventilation, and propane heat can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. The foam huts provided insulation. Run a heater for a few minutes, the huts stayed warm for hours. They were never meant to be a permanent solution, but they could help people get through the winter. They could save lives.
Yet in January of this year, public backlash against the huts began to build in Hartford. Subsequent Select Board discussion led town officials to place the structures in storage. People were back in tents.
Simon Dennis operates covertly, over-shoulder glances, riding in other people’s cars. There are folks in Hartford who do not like him. Standing well over 6 feet tall, his lankiness is often hidden under his paint-flecked sweatshirt and khakis. He is a quiet but commanding presence. His words come slowly, mulled over in the space between his first thought and lips. When he speaks, each word carries the sure presence of moral conviction.
“This is about systemic change in a time of historical crisis,” Dennis said, leaning up against an RV trailer sitting in the parking lot of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Upper Valley, in Norwich.
As a member of Hartford’s ad hoc committee on emergency shelter, Dennis has been looking for legal loopholes to create emergency housing for over a year.
“One of the things we did discover was that the recreational vehicle — which is what this is — is not governed by the state water regulations because it’s not considered a house,” he said. “As long as you don’t have an extension cord running to it or a hose running to it, it’s a freestanding structure and it’s under the jurisdiction of the Department of Motor Vehicles.”
Loophole located, Dennis acquired a trailer and repaired it. He worried not over smoke detectors and septic systems but brakes and brake lights. Inspected, stickered and road-ready, renovations ensued to convert the trailer into a two-unit mobile apartment.
As Dennis spoke, he scanned the imperfections of his creation, hands mapping chipped paint and bloated floor boards. “I wish we’d used a tighter metal,” he said, running his fingers over the corrugated silver siding. Keeping people safe and sheltered is not quite enough. He wants it to be beautiful.
But the trailer does look good. Its sleek silver siding glistened like an Airstream. Each end’s door is painted an eccentric neon green, the windows and trim navy blue. It doesn’t look out of place in the shadow of the UU church, with its solar paneled roof and just-so overgrown garden.
Zoning regulations limit the time the trailer can spend within town limits. Norwich allows a month, Lebanon six weeks, Hartford a mere two weeks. Dennis plans to move the RV between church parking lots within walking distance of Advance Transit bus stops.
“We’re just trying to get through the winter. With this we’re also raising awareness of the fact that our zoning regs are putting human beings in danger,” he said.
At the convergence of the pandemic, the opioid epidemic, and the potential end of the General Assistance motel program, RVs may be Hartford’s best solution. The town, it seems, does not have a better idea.
“The Select Board does not have a clear path forward at this time,” said Hartford Select Board member Ally Tufenkijian of the town’s efforts to deal with its increased population of unhoused people. “This is why the ad hoc committee on emergency shelter has been researching and proposing potential solutions to the town.”
Dennis’s goal — and that of the emergency shelter committee — is to change Hartford’s RV policy to allow for longer stays. For that, the committee will need the approval of the town’s planning commission.
“The Hartford ad hoc committee on emergency shelter’s proposed changes would match the state of Vermont’s zoning regulations for RVs,” Tufenkijian said. “RVs would be a safe, low-barrier temporary housing solution for folks in need of emergency shelter.”
Hartford’s Select Board Chair Dan Fraser has been vocal about the board’s failure, thus far, to find a sustainable way to house people. He, too, thinks changing the town’s RV policy might be the best step forward.
“We want to look at the zoning regulations, the planning regulations for what kind of vehicle [regulations] we might potentially allow to change, so that RVs could be in place longer,” said Fraser. “We’re just trying to think outside the box a little bit and come up with a solution as we are rapidly approaching winter.”
All in all, Dennis said the RV project cost about $5,000. During the first year of the pandemic, Vermont — using federal dollars — spent over $50 million housing people in motels. That money could have funded thousands of RVs, Dennis suggested — and would provide a longer-term solution than motels.
As Dennis and I spoke outside the RV, Brandi Briggs, who currently resides inside the trailer, stepped off the Advance Transit bus across the street, making her way home. She had previously been sleeping in a foam dome built by Dennis not far from Keith’s hut until the police insisted she leave.
“It’s very different here; I’m right in public,” Briggs said of living in the RV. She has been homeless since the winter of 2019 after being wrongfully evicted. She fought the eviction and won, but her former apartment was condemned in the process.
“I can’t get any help from anywhere,” she added. “I fall through all the loopholes.”
Briggs does not need mental health care, does not require disability, nor does she require addiction treatment. After being forced to leave her campsite in early October, LISTEN Community Services, an Upper Valley nonprofit, paid for her to stay in an airbnb for four nights until the RV was ready.
Briggs has started making the RV more like home. She has a custom built bed — smaller than a typical twin — to make the unit feel more spacious. Inside, she whittles and does other crafts. At night, she reads and researches issues related to the local unhoused community, like a recent spike in overdoses at Dartmouth Hitchcock. The day before, she cut carpet for the steps leading to the door so she wouldn’t slip.
“Simon’s helped me so much,” Briggs said.
Dennis, though, believes his work is the only moral option. “It basically comes down to can we distance ourselves emotionally enough to perpetuate a completely brutal housing situation?”
“The protection of life is the bottom line,” he said. “There is no other option.”