Harbor Place motel in Shelburne will open its rooms as isolation space for homeless individuals exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. The measure is intended to decrease the spread of the virus in the community for the welfare of all Vermonters, according to Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Burlington).
The decision was announced on Thursday, March 19.
“One of the most vulnerable populations is the homeless population … in large part because typical shelter is actually quite congested,” Ashe said. “Already being susceptible to catching the virus, and then being in close proximity to others puts them at a heightened risk.”
Champlain Housing Trust – which manages Harbor Place as temporary lodging for homeless individuals – in conjunction with the state’s Agency of Human Services, will offer rooms in the Harbor Place motel to homeless individuals who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
Any guests who test positive for COVID-19 will be moved to a Congregate Recovery Center or a medical center.
“The state has an estimate that there may be up to 150 people in the Burlington area that need to have a place,” said Chris Donnelly, the Housing Trust’s director of community relations. “It’s like a tsunami coming if we don’t stop it.”
Harbor Place has 57 rooms, some of which are currently occupied and will not be immediately available, Donnelly said. The state is relocating those individuals, he added. The state has also committed to providing food to those individuals who will be in isolation at Harbor Place.
Homeless individuals should contact their primary care physician or a community health center/hospital if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Referrals to Harbor Place will be determined from there, Donnelly said.
According to Ashe, similar measures are being taken across the state. At 4:30 p.m. on Friday, March 20, members of the House Rules Committee and the Agency of Human Services planned to meet – remotely – to discuss those measures.
A dormitory in central Vermont and other motels across the state have been discussed as potential isolation spaces for infected individuals, Ashe said. The state is establishing about 380 rooms statewide for homeless individuals who are exhibiting symptoms or are presumptive positive, Donnelly said.
Some community members have challenged Harbor Place’s operations as temporary accommodations for the homeless. In October 2015, Shelburne officials issued a Notice of Violation regarding the motel. The notice said Harbor Place was not adhering to zoning regulations for a motel. Then-town manager, Joe Colangelo, said – among other points – that Harbor Place was not a motel because it did not serve the general public, rather, a subset of people. But the town’s development review board ruled Harbor Place was compliant with the town’s zoning bylaws.
After the recent decision to open the motel as isolation space for homeless individuals who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, some community members have again expressed concern.
“I certainly understand everyone’s anxiety about this virus and this pandemic,” Ashe said. “These are not normal times where we can discuss whether we’re going to meet these people’s needs. If we do not meet these peoples’ needs with a solution that has been presented, it means that more people will get sick, and that more people might die.”
That, he believes, is why the state must defer to public health officials and make such accommodations.
The Champlain Housing Trust has also heard community concerns. The trust contacted Shelburne officials to discuss concerns about the potential draw on the town’s resources, including its single ambulance, Donnelly said.
“I get the fear,” Donnelly said. “The alternative of not providing a place for folks to be isolated, and have that social distancing, is going to be worse for all of us. There’s no other way to stop the spread.”
Shelburne Town Manager Lee Krohn learned of the state and Champlain Housing Trust’s decision to house homeless individuals exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms at Harbor Place through emails from residents.
“Chris Donnelly from CHT tried to get ahold of us, but we hadn’t connected,” Krohn said. “Once we learned of it, we set about to learn more about it, find out what their actual plan was, what their management plans were for the site and the persons who were going to be housed there.”
Shelburne has two ambulances both of which are staffed by volunteers. But it’s not guaranteed both rigs can be staffed every day, Krohn said.
“These people are volunteers and not all of them may wish to put themselves at a heightened level of risk,” he said. “It’s been tough as it is, it’s tougher right now.”
Krohn said the town asked the state and Champlain Housing Trust questions including whether someone will be on staff at Harbor Place to help the isolated occupants. Likewise, the town asked if there was alternative transport for the individuals staying there rather than having the town’s ambulance respond to non-emergency medical calls there.
“If you’re going into a situation with known symptomatic persons, now you’re using a very limited supplies of what we call PPE, personal protective equipment. And then the ambulance has to be decontaminated at the hospital before it can return,” Krohn said. “What used to be kind of a one-hour turnaround time for a rescue rig, is now a minimum of two hours and it could be twice that.”
As of Sunday, March 22, Krohn said the state and trust had begun to answer the town’s questions.
“They can’t guarantee everything, and we all understand that this is all happening on the fly and not everything can be perfectly planned for or answered immediately,” Krohn said. “They are starting to address our concerns, and we hope that will continue for everyone’s benefit.”
“I’m grateful that CHT and the state have stepped up to the plate to try to help address concerns raised,” he continued.
Harbor Place is not currently seeking food donations as plans are still developing. However, expressing compassion is one way individuals can help, Donnelly said.
“We’re all, having really, really challenging times,” he said. “We all need to understand that we’re in this together that includes both housed and not housed people.”
Keeping all Vermonters safe
The best way to keep all Vermonters safe is the million-dollar question, according to Ashe.
“Most measures to have system-wide or statewide impacts are in the governor’s control under his executive powers during the state of emergency,” Ashe said. “At this point, the one tool that is left, as I see it, ... is a statewide stay-in-place order.”
A growing number of cities and states have issued stay-at-home orders, requiring residents to remain as close to home as possible in the coming weeks.
Gov. Phil Scott said on Monday, March 23, he expects Vermont to see a stay-at-home policy in a matter of days.
“The measures we’ve been taking, I think, will help slow the spread of the virus,” Ashe said. “We’re obviously urging the governor to take the most aggressive actions necessary to keep people safe.”
Ashe hopes people will be mindful of the effects of their actions. He hopes they will show kindness, compassion and flexibility during this time.
“This is a moment where each of us has to recognize that our own actions don’t just affect our own well-being and the people who are closest to us,” Ashe said. “Our own actions will have an impact on whether other people get sick. And so, every decision state government is making is with the aim of keeping the most people healthy and alive as possible.”
As for Vermont’s small-business economy, Ashe said the state would do all it can to press the federal government to provide relief.
“We’re going to see revenue reductions to the state of more than $100 million just in the next couple months,” He said. “Just at the time that we need more state money to boost the economy, we have fewer dollars available to do that with. That’s why the federal government’s reactions are going to be so critical to get people back on their feet.”