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A fire in Hartford highlights tensions in addressing Vermont’s housing crisis

A tiny nonprofit in White River Junction has been trying to help homeless residents by building small mobile shelters for them. But a recent fire at one of the nonprofit's shelters has drawn scrutiny to their approach.

For the past three years, a tiny nonprofit in White River Junction has been determined to address perhaps the most vexing issue facing Vermont: the affordable housing crisis. Doorways Into Good Shelter was especially determined to help local homeless residents by quickly building small mobile homes for them.

DIGS and their leader, longtime nonprofit figure Simon Dennis, wanted to build “micro-dwellings'' with volunteer labor and donated or discounted materials. The nonprofit said mobile homes, the latest iteration of its shelters, could avoid some of the red tape that experts say have slowed housing development in Vermont.

“Trailers surely are the 3.0 version of our innovations in emergency shelter. The beneficial aspect of this solution is that State water regulations do not require 'vehicles' to be plumbed for water and sewer, making mobile shelters Vermont’s only clear path to low-cost emergency shelter,” says DIGS’ history section of its website.

The homes built by DIGS exist in a regulatory gray zone; the mobile shelters aren’t considered “public buildings” under state statute, and according to public safety officials, that means they’re not subject to housing inspections.

With Vermont’s homelessness rate increasing throughout the pandemic, Dennis, DIGS’ director, said it was imperative to move quickly.

“We’re just trying to get through the winter,” Dennis told the Mountain Timesin 2021. “With this we’re also raising awareness of the fact that our zoning regs are putting human beings in danger.”

The nonprofit built four mobile shelters, giving several people a place to stay who may have otherwise been left to camp in freezing temperatures. The group hoped to construct more units.

But now the approach is coming under scrutiny after a recent fire at one of the units has left the tenant hospitalized for four months with third-degree burns.

Fire officials haven’t been able to determine the exact cause of the fire. However, they did find evidence that the propane heating system — which was not installed by a licensed technician — was leaking. And Hartford Fire Chief Scott Cooney said some actions that Dennis took in the aftermath of the fire were “odd,” and hindered the investigation.

Dennis initially granted Vermont Public two short interviews but did not respond to repeated follow-up questions.

In a phone conversation, Dennis said the shelters built by DIGS aren’t currently being used and all of them had their propane heaters checked.

“This event is tragic and ambiguous,” Dennis said. “It’s not at all clear that propane is the cause of the event.”

The fire

Investigators considered several ignition sources, including electrical wiring in the propane heater, microwave and ceiling light fixture, discarded smoking materials, and power outlets, according to a report written by Det. Sgt. Christopher Blais, a member of Vermont State Police’s fire and explosion investigation unit. The investigation also identified several potential causes of the fire, including engineering defects, component failure and occupant negligence. But, Blais wrote in the report that there wasn’t enough evidence to “support any conclusive determination.”

"Because the trailer had been moved multiple times and the regulator had been taken off and put back on, we could not definitively say that the propane was leaking at the time of the fire or explosion."
Christoper Blais, Vermont State Police

Investigators did find indications that the unit’s propane heating system was leaking, according to the report.

“When we did a leak down test on the propane system, we found that the propane system for the heater in the unit was leaking,” Blais said in an interview. “However, because the trailer had been moved multiple times and the regulator had been taken off and put back on, we could not definitively say that the propane was leaking at the time of the fire or explosion.”

That propane heater also wasn’t installed by a certified gas technician, according to Blais’ report.

While the cause of the fire is undetermined, local safety officials say they have concerns about allowing people to live in buildings that have not been thoroughly scrutinized by regulators.

“Our role yet in enforcement and permitting for these structures is unclear,” said Cooney, Hartford’s fire chief. “I think any living structure that has been designed for occupancy should be inspected for the life safety and welfare of the individuals that are occupying it.”

The fire at the DIGS shelter occurred on Dec. 14. Dennis learned about the blaze from the property owner where the shelter was located, according to a Hartford police report. When Dennis arrived at the scene of the fire he found the resident of the unit, Keith Gokey, had been severely burned, the report says.

Dennis didn’t call 911, according to the report. He later told police that it didn’t occur to him to call emergency services. Instead, Dennis drove Gokey to the emergency department at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, records say.

Hartford Police and Fire Departments didn’t learn about the incident until the next day after getting a call from Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said Hartford Police investigator Eric Clifford in an interview.

Gokey had third degree burns over 40% of his body, including inside his throat, according to police reports. He was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital and remains hospitalized four months later.

“He's been through a very challenging time,” said Charlie Buttrey, Gokey’s attorney, in an interview. “He recognizes he's got a long row to hoe but he is, I think, committed to getting back on his feet and living independently again.”

Gokey interviewed in 2021: For A Night, Housed And Unhoused Vermonters Share Their Stories

A man with a hat, glasses and a beard stands in front of many painted cardboard boxes
Lexi Krupp
Vermont Public
Keith Gokey participated in a performance at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction in August 2021 organized by the nonprofit Telling My Story. In December 2022, Gokey was seriously injured when a mobile home he was living in caught fire.

Gokey’s shelter was on a piece of private property in Hartford, with the permission of the landowner, according to police records. Gokey, the landowner and Dennis had all signed an agreement to allow the structure to be on the property. When police and fire officials arrived at the site to begin their investigation in December, they found that the burned out shelter had been moved by Dennis, the incident report says.

Investigators got in touch with Dennis, records say, and were able to retrieve the shelter and bring it back to the fire station. Dennis later told police that he moved the shelter because it was going to be used at an upcoming vigil. Fire investigators found the shelter had been partially cleaned and re-painted, according to Blais’s investigation report.

“We were never able to investigate the unit post-incident as it was removed from that location, which inhibited some of our ability to look at evidence,” said Cooney in an interview. “I would say it was odd for it to be moved as well and for us to not receive a report of the incident occurring.”

Dennis told investigators that he didn’t move the trailer to hinder their investigation, the incident report says.

Initially, Dennis told police he suspected that the heating unit caused the fire, though he later said he was just speculating, according to the incident report.

“The plastic around the coffee cake was melted. And when I saw that I thought ‘how the hell did this, like when we don’t have much signs, how did this thing get melted?’” Dennis told police, according to the incident report. “And the answer is, as you know, propane leaked out of the heating unit, Keith lit a cigarette, it ignited the propane and he got burnt.”

According to the incident report, Dennis also told police that the heater was on “full blast” when he arrived at the shelter, though Dennis said he didn’t smell any propane.

We all started off assuming it was propane and we ended up in a different place
Simon Dennis, director of Doorways into Good Shelter

Dennis, in a recent phone call, said that now he doesn’t think the propane heater caused the fire.

“We all started off assuming it was propane and we ended up in a different place,” Dennis said in the brief interview. “ I have a lot of evidence to suggest it’s not.”

In an interview with Vermont Public, Dennis declined to share what evidence he had. He also said he hadn’t shared it with police or fire investigators.

According to the police report, Gokey told Dennis that the fire didn’t have anything to do with the heating unit. Gokey also told nurses at the emergency department that his sleeping bag caught on fire from a lit cigarette. But the forensic nurse told police that she didn’t believe that was the cause of the fire because Gokey didn’t have any burn injuries on the lower half of his body, records say.

Blais, with the state police, was also able to interview Gokey in the hospital this month, but Blais said in an recent interview that he’s still unable to determine an exact cause of the fire.

“[Gokey] did tell us that he did not smell propane, which is not unheard of,” Blais said in an interview with Vermont Public. “It could indicate, like low levels or something else. He did recall hearing like a loud poof, and then seeing fire within the trailer.”

“His memory of it was a little foggy, obviously — I mean, it's a pretty serious trauma,” Blais added. “He did not shed enough light for me to definitively name an area of origin and a cause to the fire, so it still remains undetermined.”

Police forwarded their reports to Windsor State’s Attorney Ward Goodenough, who has not filed any criminal charges related to the incident.

“Our office had not identified probable cause for a charge within the report that was sent,” Goodenough said in an interview. “We'll certainly review any other materials that are provided.”

Emergency shelter

Dennis is well known in the Upper Valley for his work trying to provide housing for people who need help. He co-founded COVER Home Repair in 1998, which uses volunteer labor to do repairs for low-income homeowners.

Dennis graduated from Bates College with a philosophy degree and was working as a junior carpenter when he started COVER, according to a 2004 story in the Rutland Herald. The organization initially received funding from Dartmouth College, and several other local organizations.

“The Upper Valley has a population of the very well-to-do living right next to populations that are struggling financially and struggling in terms of their housing,” Dennis told the Rutland Herald in 2004. "I just felt there was the sense of urgency about that juxtaposition of need with surplus. When these types of extremes take place, then everybody loses.”

Until recently, Dennis was also on the Hartford Selectboard. He has served for nine years on the board, including two years as the board’s chair.

His recent efforts at DIGS have been aimed at addressing Vermont’s vexing housing crisis, particularly for low-income residents. The state’s homelessness rate, which is now 43 per 10,000 people, increased 151% since the start of the pandemic and is now one of the worst rates of homelessness in the country, according to a recent study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

State agencies, municipalities and local nonprofits have been trying to increase housing production, primarily through an infusion of federal funds. In Burlington, the city used COVID-19 relief money to open a new shelter, consisting of 30 shelter "pods." Housing agencies like Champlain Housing Trust and the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust have turned old motels into permanent housing and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board recently awarded $7.94 million dollars to a developer in St. Albans to build 72 affordable apartments, with 11 of those units set aside for families who’ve experienced homelessness.

DIGS has taken a more DIY approach in trying to help vulnerable residents, particularly those who aren’t able to stay in the area’s homeless shelters. The trailer unit that Gokey was living in is the latest version of the nonprofit’s attempts to create more permanent — and safe — shelters for people without homes in Hartford.

DIGS received its official nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service in February, according to a letter from the agency, and so far, there are no 990s, annual financial disclosures that most non-profits are required to file, that are publicly available.

According to DIGS’ website, the nonprofit started building shelters in December 2019 to provide housing for several people who were camping in subzero temperatures. The first structures — described as “dome-type shelters” — cost about $400 and included a lockable door and smoke and carbon monoxide detector.

DIGS built another set of shelters that were larger — about 6 feet by 10 feet and insulated. These “micro-dwellings” cost about $1,500 to make, and between 2020 and 2021, DIGS built 16 of these shelters, according to their website.

“These are emergency times. We are in the middle of a pandemic,” Dennis told the Valley News. “They are, quite frankly, a lifeline for people camping outside.”

But the huts sparked controversy in Hartford. The shelters were built without permits and some town residents raised safety concerns about the structures, according to a Valley Newsstory from December 2020. Dennis was also criticized for starting to build these unpermitted dwellings while he was still a member of the selectboard, the Valley News reported. The town manager at the time noted that the shelters were a “humanitarian response” to address homelessness, according to the Valley News.

The huts were taken down and put into storage in January 2021, and the people living in them moved into motels, according to the Valley News.

So the nonprofit decided to make RV-like mobile shelters, which aren’t regulated under state or local building codes. RVs, as long as they aren’t hooked up to a water or wastewater systems, aren’t considered a building or structure, according to a memo from the Department of Environmental Conservation.

On its website, DIGS said its decision to build mobile homes came after seeing its project with more traditional-looking homes scrutinized for “setting a bad precedent by not following” the town permitting process or state fire-safety codes.

Bryan Luikart, DIGS board chair, said in an email that the nonprofit did not start making the mobile shelters due to the backlash about the earlier shelters.

It cost Dennis about $5,000 to build the first RV unit, according to the Mountain Times in 2021. At the time of the fire in December 2022 the nonprofit had four shelters in use, Dennis told police, according to the incident report.

DIGS, according to its website, finds volunteers willing to host a trailer on their property. The nonprofit would support the person in the unit, including providing propane, repairs, and a portable toilet, the website says.

Luikart, DIGS board chair, said in an email that the nonprofit hasn’t decided if it's going to continue making shelters, or if it will make any design changes. Luikart said the organization hoped to learn from the incident and “devise better shelters, procedures, and agreements to protect both the unhoused population and the nonprofits working to house them.”

“The first response to the incident was to disconnect the propane heating system from all units because we assumed this to be a possible cause of fire,” Luikart said in the email. “We are also working with existing residents to expedite placement into permanent housing solutions. Since these initial measures, we have waited for an official determination from the investigators to determine the cause of the fire. Unfortunately, the investigation did not identify the source of the fire.”

'Safety is an emergency'

Hartford public safety officials say they’d like to be able to inspect these units.

Hartford’s Fire Marshal Tom Peltier said in an interview that he’s always available to inspect buildings and make safety recommendations — even if it’s not required under state and local regulations.

“People don't have a place to live — that's an emergency, 100%,” he said. “But … you know, safety is an emergency. So we try to make sure that that's not forgotten.”

The town did explore changing local regulations around RVs starting in late 2021, according to meeting minutes from the Hartford Planning Commission. An Ad-Hoc Committee on Emergency Shelter, which Dennis was a member of, proposed removing restrictions that limited the length of time an RV could be parked in one location. Hartford’s current ordinance only allows an RV to be used as sleeping quarters for 14 days.

The ordinance change would also have required a certificate of occupancy from the fire marshal and zoning administrator for RVs that are used as a permanent home, according to meeting minutes from August 2022. But the proposal hasn’t gone any further, said Lori Hirshfield, Hartford’s director of planning and development.

“The individuals that are interested in pursuing it had indicated possibly that they would come back to the planning commission with some other input,” Hirshfield said in an interview. “Nothing has been provided as of yet.”

The Ad-Hoc Committee on Emergency Shelter also tabled a plan to create a campground of micro-dwellings due to regulatory hurdles, including the high cost of obtaining an Act 250 permit and developing water and septic systems, the Valley News reported last February.

Hartford Town Health Officer Brett Mayfield said in an interview that he thinks the state should step in to help clarify regulations around these types of shelters.

“The state of Vermont has to step up especially for rural areas,” Mayfield said. “It needs to step up and say, ‘OK, there's a really dangerous gray area here — now, what do we want to do? Do we want to say it's exempt? … or do we want to regulate it?”

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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