Members of Shelburne’s Selectboard and Champlain Housing Trust met earlier this month to talk about how to make Shelburne a more welcoming place for all — including those temporarily residing at Harbor Place.

Located in the former Days Inn at 3229 Shelburne Road, Harbor Place is a motel, owned and operated by Champlain Housing Trust, that utilizes the motel voucher program administered by the state to temporarily house homeless individuals. But Chris Donnelly, Champlain Housing Trust’s director of community relations, explained that Harbor Place does not exclusively utilize the motel voucher program — it also contracts with the University of Vermont Medical Center and other social service agencies like Steps to End Domestic Violence.

“That’s one thing I want to make sure to emphasize, Harbor Place is a motel, not a shelter. It’s not transitional housing. It’s a motel,” Donelly said.

The motel has been a topic of contention among residents and some former selectboard members with many conflating a perceived increase in crime to the people living at Harbor Place. In an attempt to renew the sometimes fraught relationship the town has with the housing trust, selectboard members Cate Cross and Andrew Everett met with CEO Michael Monte to discuss a better partnership moving forward.

“We know that past selectboards and management in Shelburne were not really friendly when it came to sitting down with (Champlain Housing Trust),” Cross said. “There is such a wound from past experiences on their part where they felt really backed into a corner and it didn’t feel like a constructive way for them to hear feedback. They felt like people were just angry and coming after them.”

Monte said the meeting was a way for leadership to “restate their commitment to meet with (police chief, Mike Thomas), the town manager and individuals on the selectboard as we work through any issues at Harbor Place,” he said. “We indicated that we like our discussions to be fact-based and will rely on (Thomas) and police to assist us in identifying issues where a law has been broken or where behavior has been an issue.”

Cross said that the group agreed to meet on a monthly basis with Thomas to discuss any trends in police data because “we don’t have enough data to go off of to say, ‘Hey, this is a problem’ or Here’s a weak point that we can work with you to build.’”

Everett, who is also a board member of the Shelburne Craft School, said, “I think there’s a feeling in town that bad things happen and Champlain Housing Trust just doesn’t do anything about it and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Although there is no data that links crime to individuals at Harbor Place, residents have flooded public comment at past selectboard meetings to air grievances about the motel and the housing trust. At a selectboard meeting last summer, business owners took to the mic to express the “unsustainable environment” that the motel voucher program creates for businesses that are located in the town of Shelburne.

“Currently the situation, in my opinion, is out of control, with the state of Vermont and the Champlain Housing Trust just throwing millions of dollars at a problem with no plan or solution,” Tim Williams, a Shelburne resident and the owner of Exterus Business Furniture, Archies Grill and the Scoop, said at the time.

In 2020, the trust also faced vehement resident opposition when looking to build affordable housing at the site of the former Champlain Lanes Bowling Alley, with some residents expressing disapproval of affordable housing in town altogether.

At a planning commission meeting in 2020 to discuss the development, one resident said, “The opinion of a lot of people really comes down to not wanting low-income housing near them.”

Another resident chimed in, “I drove by (Harbor Place) on the way here and there was a Shelburne (police) cruiser parked right out front. My car gets broken into since they moved in and never before. Now they are buying another property in my neighborhood, and I’m having a hard time with this.”

More recently, the subject came again to the selectboard table after a man at the motel caused substantial damage to a room and assaulted a member of Shelburne Rescue and a Shelburne police officer.

Monte explained that background screenings for individuals coming into the motel are limited due to the nature of their contract with the state. But at the moment, the trust does not allow anyone who is a registered sex offender and if someone commits a petty crime, “we will give one warning, and ask them to leave if it occurs again.”

He said the trust is currently “working to get approved as an agency that works with the vulnerable so that we can use a background check service to screen for violent individuals.”

But Cross and Everett explained that the meeting was mostly meant to reestablish Shelburne as a place that welcomes diversity while working to dismantle the negative stigma many residents and town officials have placed on Harbor Place.

“They’re not going anywhere,” Everett said. “They’re part of Shelburne, and it’s important for the leaders of Shelburne to just be neighborly and say, ‘this is part of the community and how can we make them feel welcome?’”

“It’s easy to make people who are different than ourselves seem ‘othered,’” said Cross, who is also a member of the town’s diversity and equity committee. “I think we all, in our families or among our circles, have loved ones who have struggled with drug abuse, alcohol abuse, mental illness and even homelessness. So to think about how we can diversify our community and welcome folks in who need an extra hand really is a driving factor for me.”

State program

With pandemic-era funding for the state’s motel voucher program expected to dry up by July 1, nearly 1,800 households currently housed in hotels and motels across the state are expected to be without shelter.

The state has a contract with Champlain Housing Trust for a block of rooms dedicated to those utilizing the housing programs.

Donnelly explained that the motel currently houses 55 adults and 13 children, and in any given year can service more than 600 people over the 12-month period. Because of its set contract with the state, the motel will still be utilized by those using the voucher program after July 1, but now the criteria for those entering the program will revert to pre-pandemic guidelines on a much stricter basis.

“Things like: Do you have a child under six? Are you in your third trimester of pregnancy? Are you older?” Donnelly said. “There’s a certain level of criteria, and then you qualify. Depending on your situation it allows a certain number of days.”

Although the voucher program is ending, he explained that Harbor Place is still expected to maintain at full capacity in coming months.

“Harbor Place will still be used as a motel for people who don’t have another place to go,” he said. “I think the real effects going to be on the people that are staying in the motels and communities that will be trying to support them. That’s the real issue.”

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