Winter weather — and temperatures well below freezing — have arrived in Lamoille County, but homeless people in the area are still waiting for the local shelter to open.
The Lamoille Community House, Hyde Park’s homeless shelter, was scheduled to open for the season Sunday, Nov. 15, but staff is still working with local zoning officials and state leaders to allow the shelter to remain open 24 hours a day.
Since opening, the Lamoille Community House has only been open to those in need for overnight stays. People were required to go elsewhere during the day.
That’s not acceptable during COVID-19, according to Kim Anetsberger, the executive director of the Lamoille Community House.
Anetsberger said she still strongly supports the idea “that we cannot open without daytime hours. We hope to open by next week, but we don’t know for sure.”
The major holdup centers on local zoning, which currently only allows the shelter to be open for business overnight. An all-day shelter will keep people safer and slow the spread of COVID-19 by keeping them out of other public facilities. Plus, many of the places typically utilized by those staying at the shelter during the day, like local libraries, aren’t open to the public with the pandemic.
“Putting folks into the cold during the day when all options in the community are closed due to COVID … is irresponsible and dangerous,” Anetsberger. “It will lead to more people wandering to seek refuge from the cold at various places for short periods of time, meaning a higher potential spread of the virus.”
Anetsberger said she and her staff are working with Hyde Park’s development review board on an exemption for the Lamoille Community House that would allow for all-day operations this winter. Such an exception could become a reality much more quickly than an actual change to local zoning bylaws, which can take months.
There is some precedent for a move like the one in the works in Hyde Park, Anetsberger said. In Barre, an emergency order by the mayor allowed the local shelter there, Good Samaritan Haven, to remain open all day during the pandemic, despite local zoning prohibiting that at the time.
“I’m working with various people in the state government and the village to get a similar order created for our shelter,” Anetsberger said.
Until the shelter does reopen, Anetsberger said they are concentrating on preparing it to comply with new COVID-19 safety protocols. The shelter now has a lower maximum capacity of only 10, and barriers have been placed between each cot. Air purifiers have also been installed and other safety measures are in place.
Anetsberger said that Community House staff have been working at one of the local lodging facilities currently housing the area’s homeless population, but they are eager to get back to the Hyde Park campus.
Some people aren’t able to take advantage of the vouchers that allow people to stay at those motels and hotels, Anetsberger said, and those individuals are “waiting on us to open as it gets colder each day.”
“I hope we are able to get this resolved by the end of the week,” Anetsberger said. “As COVID numbers rise higher than ever in Vermont, it becomes even more imperative that people without homes have somewhere to stay during the day.”
“This isn’t just for our folks who need the shelter, this is for the community at large as well. I strongly believe that having daytime hours can potentially help slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” she added.
Other housing in the county
The Lamoille Community House closed for the season last April as the pandemic fully hit Vermont. The shelter couldn’t comply with social distancing requirements and other COVID safety protocols at the time, so staff and the people staying there moved to several local hotels and motels.
By mid-November, 114 people were using government vouchers to stay at three hotels and motels in the county. All told, 147 people were experiencing homelessness across the county, according to Sherry Marcelino, a Lamoille County Mental Health staffer who is also involved in the Lamoille Valley Housing and Homeless Coalition, the county-wide effort that includes several non-profits and service agencies working to find housing and needed services for those without them.
Of the 114 people, 86 are adults and 28 are children, Marcelino said. Statewide, there are well over 1,600 people using vouchers to find transitional housing, she said.
“Our numbers have dramatically increased,” since April, she said. So far, 16 people involved have received additional vouchers to help them subsidize rent for between 12 and 18 months once they find permanent housing, but that’s also tricky.
“The vacancy rate is between 0-1 percent for fair market apartments,” Marcelino said, so there’s just not many places for people to find housing.