(First in a multi-part series)
by Aaron Warner
Like many Vermont communities, Hartford has a growing and highly visible problem with homelessness. An attempted housing solution approved by the selectboard faces criticism from neighbors and others.
Twin Pines Housing, a bi-state organization, has a proposal currently approved by the town Select Board for a homeless housing project it intends to put on the property of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church which lies adjacent to the Upper Valley Haven, both of which offer services to people in need and are partnering with Twin Pines on this project. Despite the Select Board’s approval the local neighbors are not all in favor and many plan to appeal the process in hopes of halting it in favor of another location.
The proposal aims to build 18 single residential units available as short term housing for “chronically” homeless people. Citing their Parkhurst project in Lebanon, NH as a successful model, the TPH proposal as written spells out most of the logistics of the building process but is unclear on what is meant by “successful”. There is also no mention of their vetting process, which concerns many residents as the project would house 18 people within a few blocks of the town high school, elementary school and two of the three middle schools.
One resident expressed concern after already having his 15-year-old granddaughter report having been harassed with cat calls by a homeless person on her way to Hartford High School in the morning. He also found a younger grandchild in possession of a THC dab pen that had an intense enough dose to hospitalize her or worse. A lifelong resident, this man worries for these two girls while also expressing anger at the way the project is being rammed through against many of the neighborhood’s wishes.
“It’s not in the right place for a project like that. It’s not zoned properly and there are way too many kids in the area for this to be safe.”
Another lifelong local feels the same. He cites closed meetings, controlling town member dialogue to avoid accountability, and fast-tracking this deal without due consideration to those most affected by the project’s location. He is prepared to appeal and stop the project.
Though an older man busy with multiple jobs he feels strongly enough about it to hire a graphic designer to help get the message to his fellow neighbors. “Wake up!” he says for those unaware. He is certain if they knew the risks most people would vote it down, and that’s why he believes the fix is in with the select board pushing this forward in relative secrecy.
A closer look at the homeless problem in America finds attempted solution have not been very effective. One study finds the pandemic has resulted in 600,000 new homeless. West coast cities from San Diego to Seattle are overrun with tent cities scattered throughout neighborhoods, under overpasses, in parks and even along interstates. Hartford has had a growing homelessness problem with tents and temporary shanties popping up around the area with little to no town supervision or support.
The cost of homelessness is difficult to estimate. New York alone claims to have spent $3.2 billion in 2019 to deal with the problem. The federal government offered $2.7 billion to programs throughout the U.S. in 2020.
Like other thorny issues, homelessness is covered in partisanship. While the Trump administration took an accountability approach with housing number four in the services offered after job, sobriety and treatment as necessary priors, the Biden administration gave $350 billion to housing first (HF) initiatives such as the one proposed by Twin Pines.
Housing first is the approach being considered in Hartford. Its proponents claim people given housing first are inclined to seek treatment, get off drugs and find employment with the security of knowing they have a place to live. Critics, such as those at the Manhatten Institute, say housing first has not shown better health outcomes, nor meaningful decreases in homeless numbers and have studies showing the HF model costs taxpayers more than the accountability based model.
Another of the driving factors in homelessness is the high cost of living in the areas where it grows. Homelessness today includes disabled veterans and even full-time government employees. Among the demographics some 20% or more suffer from a severe mental illness and many homeless are single parents.
The St. Paul’s proposal refers to Twin Pines successful Parkhurst project in Lebanon. But what makes it a success? Their website tells of twenty-nine participants with only three failures to utilize services or stay in the program without being asked to leave. Participants who have remained in the program for more than six months or moved on to other housing programs are considered among the successful.
Residents wonder about the vetting process screening out dangerous homeless people. Many are on board with using their taxpayer dollars to help those in need yet they feel it unwise to locate so many along the road to their children’s schools. Mental illness, drug use and criminal histories follow homelessness wherever it goes even into these well intended programs. It’s difficult enough to raise children these days without the added stress of wondering if they will fall victim to a mentally unstable person not yet rehabilitated.
Valley Bible Church had considered opening their annex building to help meet the need but their neighbors were vehemently opposed. The church’s elders were willing to defy local will and allow safe haven to homeless in need. However, Twin Pines ultimately pulled the plug there after considering the less than hospitable voice of the people.
It seems area churches are keen to heed the call to help those in need, but the location and methods have residents concerned. Nearby Riverbank Church has a large parcel of land situated near a business park that many feel is ideal to the project – far enough away from children to both comfort parents and keep participants from their wrath. If the current proposal fails, that option may be considered.
A woman who has used the services of one of the project’s partners, the Upper Valley Haven, has had nothing but great things to say. Her mom, widowed when she was a child, has utilized the Haven over the years and still goes monthly to get food. In that time her mom has held several jobs with help from the Haven that has offered enough stability for her to get a full ride scholarship to UVM.
As a 9th grader she worked with at least five homeless families who had children in Hartford schools while living at the Haven. She says the Haven is “awesome” and “really does help people”. As a young Christian recently converted to the faith she sees the love of Jesus being the great need of everyone including and especially the homeless, who should not be cast off as “druggies” but need the church to shepherd them from their lost and homeless state to one that offers eternal shelter.
She is proud of the town of Hartford and wants to see it working together to help these people instead of condemning their sad state.
Categories: Local government
It’s a badly-needed project but the location is too small. The Twin Pines project is linked to the Haven’s own expansion plans and they play musical parking spaces with St. Paul’s Church depending on the day of the week. It should really be in an area where there is more room and not so close to the schools.