A new law clears the way for a homeless shelter in the Northeast Kingdom
This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Anthony Heath, 32, stopped by Northeast Kingdom Community Action’s St. Johnsbury Marketplace to fill a thermos with hot coffee. He’d taken this daily ritual for granted before he lost his apartment a few months ago. Heath fell behind on rent after a breakup, and cycled through friends’ and family members’ homes before ending up in a tent in the town’s municipal forest — a spot he’d just been told to leave that morning.
“Being in a tent, it’s just like, it’s freezing,” he said.
For several years, the Northeast Kingdom, which has the highest rates of poverty in the state, has been without a shelter, leaving a gaping hole in the safety net for Heath and other residents who’ve fallen into homelessness.
As winter approaches, Northeast Kingdom Community Action is hustling to change that. The local anti-poverty agency is working to stand up a year-round, round-the-clock, low-barrier shelter in St. Johnsbury by December.
For years, the town has restricted shelters to a single zoning district near its hospital, constraining where a new shelter would be feasible. But a provision of the HOME Act, passed by Vermont lawmakers in June, limits how municipalities make decisions about shelter sites, clearing the way for this new project.
It’s an early test of the new law, and proof, its architects say, that it’s working as intended.
“This was what we were trying to do,” said Rep. Seth Bongartz, D-Manchester, who helped write the law.
‘It was just exceedingly difficult to get shelters permitted’
The new law makes it more difficult to block the establishment or limit the operation of a homeless shelter by forbidding municipalities from interfering with the “intended functional use” of such shelters. It also prohibits towns and cities from limiting shelters’ seasonality or hours. It was meant to temper local opposition to shelters, which, in the past, has delayed or killed such proposals.
“In some communities, it was just exceedingly difficult to get shelters permitted,” Bongartz said.
St. Johnsbury was one of those places.
In 2015, three proposals for siting a shelter failed within the course of a year, including one in the basement of a church across the street from the Fairbanks Museum, in the heart of downtown. Some downtown business owners expressed concerns that unhoused people would seek warmth in their stores, deterring customers, according to reporting from the time.
On the heels of that repeated opposition, St. Johnsbury’s selectboard approved a change to the town’s zoning code. “Temporary overnight shelters” would be limited to one geographic area: the health services district near Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, several miles outside of downtown.
For several years, NEKCA helped run a seasonal shelter near the hospital. But it had just 10 beds, and opened only during the coldest winter months, from 5:30 p.m. until 7:30 a.m., according to Jenna O’Farrell, NEKCA’s executive director.
Then the pandemic came, and NEKCA shut down the congregate shelter, where people had stayed in close quarters. Guests were given vouchers to stay in motels through the state’s emergency housing program, O’Farrell said.
St. Johnsbury’s Fairbanks Inn accepted vouchers through the program, housing people who had few other places to turn. Last year, the town issued a zoning violation against the inn’s owner, alleging that the place was operating as a shelter outside the proper zoning district, according to records obtained by Vermont Public.
The owner appealed, in part arguin that St. Johnsbury’s restrictions on shelters constituted “de facto “exclusionary zoning” and that if the inn stopped participating in the voucher program, families would be “put out on the streets,” including children enrolled in the town’s schools. The case remains before the Environmental Division of the Vermont Superior Court. Guests receiving state vouchers remain at the inn.
Serving a ‘desperate community need’
When federal COVID-19 relief money went away, the state began to wind down the motel voucher program. As people have lost those rooms, the need for more shelter beds has become even more pronounced in communities throughout the state.
In the Kingdom, NEKCA had been involved in plans to build a new shelter on land owned by Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, but the effort has stalled amid funding and construction delays, said Casey Winterson, director of economic and community based services at NEKCA. Service providers began worrying that people living outside would have nowhere to shelter indoors this winter.
Then, this summer, the owners of a church property on Moose River Drive in St. Johnsbury approached the nonprofit developer Rural Edge and said they were considering selling.
“We took a look not expecting it to materialize into anything, but really saw the potential for the property to serve a desperate community need for an emergency shelter,” said Patrick Shattuck, executive director of Rural Edge.
Rural Edge began lining up about $740,000 in funding to purchase and renovate the church property, and NEKCA agreed to operate the site. Retrofitting an existing building to function as a shelter would take a fraction of the time it would require to finish constructing the new shelter by the hospital, Winterson said.
There was just one rub: the old church building on Moose River Drive was outside the health services zoning district.
Housing leaders found themselves in a familiar position — pleading for permission from town regulators — but this time they had a state law on their side.
When Shattuck made the pitch to the town’s Development Review Board in late September, he told the board that the new provision of the HOME law had just gone into effect at the start of the month – meaning, in his words, that “shelters are things that really can’t be regulated.” The new law was one reason why he and NEKCA and other service providers thought this new shelter might be possible at all, he said.
After over an hour of debate — including pushback from neighbors near the new shelter site, an argument over whether the proposal had been properly warned, and back and forth with the town manager about how to interpret the brand-new state housing law — the board decided to approve it.
“The fact is, it’s not a perfect setup, but I don’t think — you’re not going to be able to solve this problem with one shelter,” said board member Tony Higgs.
St. Johnsbury Town Manager Chad Whitehead noted that the HOME law is so new that there are few other examples to look to for guidance on interpreting its provision around siting a shelter.
“My understanding of the intent of it was that you could review it for very specific things: circulation of traffic, impact on stormwater, height of the building, lighting, all those types of things that land planning really circulates around — and not so much on the use and the zone,” Whitehead said. He let the Development Review Board make its own interpretation of the new provision, he said, with the understanding that the decision could be appealed.
Whitehead isn’t crazy about the HOME law intervening in local zoning matters, he said. But he recognizes the “very obvious” need for a shelter.
The new shelter on Moose River Drive
The new shelter building is built into a hill, adjacent to an affordable housing development that Rural Edge owns. It was first constructed as a single family home, then was converted into a Taekwondo studio, then into a small church, Shattuck said. There’s a kitchen onsite, and enough room inside for a communal gathering area, Winterson said.
Now, Rural Edge is finalizing its purchase of the building, and preparing to get the space ready for 20 beds. NECKA is working on hiring staff, who will need to be onsite at all hours — a requirement from the Development Review Board. They hope to open the shelter’s doors in December.
It’s still a ways away from downtown St. Johnsbury, off a road with no sidewalk. Winterson said NEKCA is working on getting the shelter better connected to local transit, and they have funding to provide taxi rides to bring people in and out of town.
Though the shelter might not be central — and will still be small to meet the need in the Kingdom — it’s an opportunity that wouldn’t have been on the table at all before the new housing law passed, Winterson said. And with a year-round, 24/7 shelter now, people will have a stable place to stay while they connect to other services, like mental health assistance, or housing counseling to help them find places to stay long-term, he said.
“If you’re without housing, how are you going to do all the other things?” Winterson said. “If you’ve got to worry about where you’re going to set up every night, especially in Vermont, when it’s 10, or 10 below outside?”
Heath, after filling up his coffee, said he wasn’t familiar with the new shelter site. When told about the project, he was quick to endorse it.
“That’d be a lot better,” he said.
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