David and Tara Barber

David and Tara Barber in front of their single motel room in Bennington they share with their 7-year-old son, Ethan. 

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BENNINGTON — Dozens of formerly homeless families living in area motels on a state voucher program face yet another eviction deadline at the end of February.

That means come March 1, many will be left with the only viable options available — living on the streets or cramming into the only 16-bed shelter available, if there’s any room.

Up to 100 families will be cut from the program that has already been extended twice, and with the likelihood that there might not be any more extensions, advocates are asking: What happens next? Are there any short- or long-term plans in place to address what’s right over the horizon?

The answer is no. There are none.

The Banner talked with numerous people and organizations with a stake in what happens when the motel voucher program ends in late winter. In a two-part series, the Banner today presents the impending problem coming to our community, and we question those with their hand on the purse strings. Then, we speak to the people and organizations working together on solutions for the upcoming homeless crisis.

‘There is no plan’

Stuart Hurd, town manager of Bennington, was frank when asked about the long and short-term plans for the homeless in Bennington and the possibility of using the ARPA (American Rescue Plan funding) to help remedy an already dire situation that promises to get much worse on March 1.

“There is no plan,” he said.

Hurd and the Bennington Select Board are in control of nearly $4 million in federal ARPA funds, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime windfall the town will ultimately decide how to spend.

“These issues are on maybe tier 3 (on the list of spending priorities). They’re way down the list,” Hurd said. “We don’t have a specific project that we can look at and move on. We looked at projects that were potentially ready to go, were eligible, and projects that we realistically could have those monies allocated for by the 2024 deadline. We don’t have a project that is out there for this.”

Hurd said he knew of no plans, within town or from any outside group or agency, to help end homelessness in the region.

“We don’t have any plans. The community doesn’t have any plans. All of the agencies that have been working on this issue don’t have any plans. We have seen this crisis coming upon us for a while. There are no plans. If you’re asking me, ‘Is the town going to look for properties to begin that process?’ I don’t think so. That’s a very long shot,” Hurd said.

There have been a lot of good things happening in Bennington recently. There are renovations happening downtown and new businesses moving in, but have officials discussed how all that good investment will look with the possibility of homeless encampments on the streets?

“No,” replied Hurd. “There haven’t been serious discussions at the board level about this impending release. Municipal government doesn’t have a plan for how we’re going to deal with this. Can something happen in the next 60 days? More than likely, not.”

Housing with services needed

Chloe Viner Collins, executive director of the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, said she has clear vision of how the ARPA funding could be used.

“My dream would be we take the $3.9 million in ARPA funding and use all of it to begin to create affordable housing with case management services built-in for 200 people,” said Viner Collins. “It’s very short-sighted to say someone else needs to step up. They’re going to have to deal with encampments of hundreds of people, which causes all kinds of other issues. Every study done shows that it costs towns and taxpayers way more money to have someone be homeless than to house them. You can look at what happened in Burlington with their encampment to see that that’s exactly what’s going to happen here.

“Saying that this isn’t their problem to solve is ethically unacceptable,” she added. “They’re going to have to spend a lot more money addressing this later if we keep ignoring it, looking for others to solve it and kicking the can further and further down the road.”

Viner Collins admitted that her proposal is probably not reasonable given the time frame involved.

“No. Not by March,” she said. “That could never get done. However, there are several motels for sale in the area. There are properties that could be converted. I’ve spoken to three or four companies that do tiny homes, fully functioning homes that can go up quickly and cheaply. It’s unlikely that any solution would take place for all of these people when and if the vouchers are removed. The program has been extended, and we can hold out hope that it can be again.”

Looking for solutions

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Jeannie Jenkins, chairperson of the Select Board, has been participating for the last year-and-a-half in an organization called The Continuum of Care, a state-run group of participating organizations formed to come up with possible solutions for housing the homeless. Unfortunately, those solutions have not been easy to find.

“The permanent solution, of course, is to make sure everyone has adequate housing,” Jenkins said. “The issue used to be very narrowly defined. It was people outside on the cold streets, the chronically homeless, and what we were going to do about them. Every December these folks would be counted for one day as to how many were out there. The numbers weren’t huge. What we found out was when the pandemic hit, and the motel voucher program kicked into high gear, all of a sudden there were a lot of people who were not known as traditionally chronically homeless, but in fact were homeless, staying on someone’s couch, or a family living in a spare bedroom, in substandard housing without heating or a proper stove, started asking for motel vouchers.”

That was the watershed moment when the community began to understand how many people there were without homes, Jenkins said.

“That changed the conversation from how do we make sure people don’t freeze to death in the winter, to how do we make sure we increase housing stock to make sure everyone has access to adequate housing,” Jenkins said.

“From a community perspective, we all woke up at the same moment in realizing this was a bigger problem than we thought,” Jenkins said. “We are now way behind the eight-ball. The last thing we want to see is people going back to living on the streets or in someone’s living room, and with the pandemic driving up prices and availability of affordable housing, any interim and long-term steps are all the more complicated.”

Obviously, this is not exclusively a Bennington problem, or even a purely Vermont issue. But with the March deadline looming, it is a pressing issue.

“It’s difficult. There is no one path forward, and as far as I know, there is no one community that has figured this out. This issue is bigger than any one community can handle,” Jenkins said.

‘Who’s going to do the work?’

Natalie Basil, executive director of Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services, believes that the town does have the ultimate responsibility to take the lead on this.

“I think the town plays a big role in this. I mean, who’s going to do the work in putting this together? These are their citizens. The town has and can play a big role. We all know there’s no housing. There’s no room at the inn. Everyone is looking around at each other, saying, ‘Who? Who? Who?’ It’s not OK to just look at the glamorous side of planning and allocating monies. It’s the stuff that’s not so pretty that’s also important.”

Is Bennington prepared to see people and families with kids on the streets?

“That is the number one worry everyone has,” Jenkins said. “No one has an answer to that question. There are absolutely no immediate solutions. We don’t have the answer right now, and we’re going to need to come up with one unless we continue with this not-great practice of having families living in inadequate motel rooms.”

Hurd said “there’s a possibility” that the Select Board would move this problem to a higher tier issue if a solution presented itself.

Could’ve been housed by now

Facing the deadline while living in a motel are David and Tara Barber with their 7-year-old son, Ethan.

“We’ve been through this before,” David said. “The funny thing is, with the amount of money they’ve spent so far, they could have easily helped us get into our own apartment. A lot of the people living like us can work and have the money to pay rent. It’s the initial deposit money and the money it takes to get into a place that continues to be a barrier for people like us. We don’t want to be here. I’m grateful for not being on the street, don’t get me wrong, but there’s an easier way to get people to affordable housing. For us, it would take just one payment towards an apartment. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Tara Barber doesn’t mince words when she hears about the ARPA funds and what that money can mean to families like hers. “Just stop the nonsense and help us get to a place where we can take care of ourselves,” she said.

If the voucher program is not extended, Tara said, “We won’t have any choice. We’ll be back on the street.”

“I wish I had a magic wand for homelessness in Bennington,” Viner Collins said with a sigh. “It will take significant time and resources. The number one stumbling block is that Bennington needs to recognize that this problem is not going away, and that these are residents of Bennington. It is our moral, humane and ethical obligation to provide housing. Housing is a human right. No one deserves to be dying of pneumonia on the street when we have millions of dollars in funding to come up with a solution.”

Coming tomorrow, the Banner talks to the people and organizations working on solutions for homelessness in Bennington.


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