Midd police struggle with homelessness surge


LEADERS OF ST. STEPHEN’S Episcopal Church on the green will likely soon install a fence and perimeter lighting to deter people from relieving themselves in the building alcove that fronts the town park. Independent photo/John S. McCright

A RECENT SURGE in the homeless population is creating challenges for Middlebury police, who find themselves responding to complaints about littering and public urination at various downtown locations — including the gazebo on the town park. The town has shut down power to the gazebo to deter folks from using it as long-term shelter. Independent photo/John S. McCright
The gazebo has been covered with vomit, urine and is a biohazard nightmare. I would never recommend anyone go there for a nice picnic lunch with their family. — Middlebury Police Sgt. Jason Covey

MIDDLEBURY — Increasing numbers of homeless folks seeking services in Middlebury are putting a strain on local police, who said they’re spending many hours responding to trespassing, assaults, disturbances and a variety of behavioral problems associated with some of those availing themselves of shelter and food in Addison County’s shire town.

Time spent sorting out complaints with transients — many of whom are from out-of-state and who are dealing with myriad mental health and substance addiction problems — is precluding police from devoting adequate time to regular patrol activities, including investigations and traffic enforcement, according to Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley.

Hanley said it was around a year and a half ago that he began noticing a surge in homelessness-related cases taken on by his officers. Previously, the homeless population had largely consisted of Addison County folks — and some from other parts of the state — who had found themselves out of a job and a home and needed temporary help, according to Hanley.

“They had been thrown out of their homes for whatever reason, and it was usually temporary,” he said. “We’d find them sneaking into the gym at the old municipal building to sleep at night. If there was an issue with them safety-wise, we had arrangements with Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects to put them up in a motel overnight, or get them lodging someplace.”

But Middlebury police have been seeing a new trend.

“What we’re experiencing now is an influx of people from all points of the country,” Hanley said. “We’ve got one here from the state of Washington, another one from Ohio, East St. Louis, New York City … They’re from all over the place. And this is what makes it different; it’s the numbers, and where they’re originating from.”

While there are those who are looking for a helping hand to a better life, Hanley and his officers have encountered several who are content to live a nomadic lifestyle, cycling through shelters and services as they go from place to place. Some of the incoming folks have criminal records and are dealing with mental health and addiction issues.

“It’s the broader availability of social services,” Hanley said of the reason some homeless people cite for their arrival in Middlebury. “The other thing we’ve heard from them is, ‘Marijuana was legalized in Vermont.’”

While adult Vermonters are allowed to possess up to two mature plants and up to an ounce of cannabis, recreational marijuana cannot legally be sold in the Green Mountain State at this point.

State law doesn’t require homeless individuals to identify themselves, so there are a few folks who remain a mystery to authorities.

“The question is, what do we do?” Hanley said. “They do take up a lot of our time, dealing with the various issues of mental health, substance abuse, alcohol problems and fighting.”

Taking a person into protective custody due to drunkenness or drug abuse triggers a four-hour commitment by two police officers, according to Hanley. Since there aren’t any detox facilities in Addison County, the person has to be taken to Burlington or Rutland. While one officer drives, another officer has to monitor the individual in the cruiser.

An officer encountering a homeless person having a mental health crisis must calm that person and take him or her to Porter Hospital for evaluation by Counseling Service of Addison County officials.

“If they (prematurely) leave the hospital, we have to go find them again,” Hanley said.

It should also be noted Middlebury PD has three officers assigned to reduced duties because they are rehabbing from work-related injuries. Until they complete rehab, they are largely confined to clerical and dispatch duties, noted Hanley, who must lean on the healthier officers to take on extra patrol shifts at a premium cost.

“It’s really stripped us of our ability to do a lot of proactive work,” Hanley said. “We get a lot of complaints about traffic issues, but we’re tied up.”

STATEWIDE PROBLEM

Doug Sinclair is co-director of the Charter House Coalition, which accommodates many of the area’s homeless at its warming shelter at 27 North Pleasant St. The shelter can accommodate around 20 individuals and a handful of families.

Like Hanley, shelter staff have been seeing two segments of the homeless population — folks with local ties temporarily down on their luck, and an out-of-state population that seems to be intentionally transient.

“This is a statewide phenomenon; it’s not just Middlebury,” Sinclair said. “I think it relates to the fact that Vermont is a very compassionate state… and that’s what makes it attractive to others. We’re seeing a lot more requests for assistance than we’ve seen before, and I know other shelters are seeing the same.”

Shelter officials are trying to discourage out-of-state homeless folks from transplanting to Middlebury.

“If someone calls us from out of state now and they just want to come to Vermont, we’re going to do what we can to encourage them to seek services where they are,” Sinclair said. “But if they do show up at our door, we’re going to try to help them.”

The shelter opens at 7 p.m. and guests can stay until 9:30 a.m. the next morning. So regular shelter guests look for things to do until the shelter reopens in the evening. While some take advantage of the shelter’s afternoon service center — where they can meet with human services providers to get referrals for additional aid — others hang out in the downtown. Favorite hangouts have included the Ilsley Public Library and the gazebo on the town green.

Police have received complaints about members of the homeless population occupying the gazebo for lengthy periods of time. Authorities have responded to complaints of homeless individuals using foul language, urinating around the structure and tapping the power outlet there to charge their own electronic devices.

“The gazebo has been covered with vomit, urine and is a biohazard nightmare,” Middlebury Police Sgt. Jason Covey wrote in a Sept. 11 memo to the town’s public safety committee. “I would never recommend anyone go there for a nice picnic lunch with their family.”

Indeed, Hanley said the behavior has deterred local residents from using the park and gazebo, which are open to the public from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Tom Klemmer is junior warden for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the green. He and fellow church leaders are very concerned some transient park users have been leaving feces, used hypodermic needles, used feminine hygiene products and other refuse in a small church alcove that fronts the green.

“This alcove provides a bit of privacy; they’ve been using it as a latrine,” Klemmer said Tuesday.

Church leaders last Thursday met with several municipal officials — including Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay — to discuss possible remedies for the alcove misuse. The leading solution appears to be an 8-foot lockable gate that would shut off access to the alcove. The gate is being designed and will need to meet with town approval. While the Episcopal Diocese owns the church building, all surrounding land is town-owned.

Klemmer said plans also call for installation of more perimeter floodlights.

CHURCH ACTION

While St. Stephen’s officials are looking to block off the church alcove, they’re committed to helping the homeless.

“At St. Stephen’s, we actually see this as a ministry that’s literally been dropped on our doorstep,” Klemmer said. “We’re not looking to put up a locking gate just for the purpose of keeping the homeless out. We also want to do something to help them.”

Klemmer noted the church — which is among the local religious institutions that hosts free community meals — has on occasion invited folks in to take a shower. Members of the congregation have been going out to talk to those hanging out at the gazebo to get a sense of their specific needs.

“At the church, we’ve been discussing how to address this,” Klemmer said.

Municipal officials are also planning, and enacting, small changes to deter loitering and littering. Those changes include:

• Making public and private utilities inaccessible. For example, electricity has been shut off to the gazebo. Power is restored on a case-by-case basis for special events.

• Asking downtown residents and businesses to keep their Wi-Fi passwords private.

• Placing more trash containers on the town green to reduce the littering problem.

Officials had discussed providing portable toilets.

“But if you provide that service, then you attract more people,” said Middlebury Selectwoman Laura Asermily, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee. “It’s a dilemma. The very amenities our tourists ask for — public bathrooms accessible 24/7, water — are the very things that attract transients, too. We talk about good guests and bad guests. We just have some bad guests who can exploit those services. It’s a challenge to decide what kind of amenities to provide downtown and on the green. So for now, we’re limiting that.”

Ultimately, officials believe the state Legislature must intervene and earmark more resources to some of the root causes of homelessness — mental health and substance abuse.

“These are individuals with individual issues. You can’t just throw a blanket over it and say, ‘They’re all homeless, let’s just increase the shelter and that will fix the problem,’” Hanley said. “It won’t. It will help some people temporarily, but it’s not going to fix anything.”

Asermily said the selectboard will soon request a meeting with local lawmakers.

“It’s a larger discussion at the state level about dealing with mental health and having appropriate services,” she said. “We’re doing as good a job as we can. We have amazing social services, but they are limited.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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