MANCHESTER — Town officials are expressing concern about the State of Vermont’s Emergency Housing Program that has placed people in local motels.
The issue has come up in recent Manchester Select Board meetings where Town Manager John O’Keefe has updated the board on the issues.
“It’s a terrible program,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a bad idea and we shouldn’t be complicit.”
But what the town’s options are weren’t immediately clear.
There are questions about the criminal activity the program has brought into town and whether the conditions in which the people in the program are living is even adequate let alone safe.
The program was brought up in February by Select Board member Heidi Chamberlain who said what she had heard was “troubling and disturbing to me.”
The program began in Manchester at the beginning of COVID-19, said O’Keefe, who pointed out it started very modestly with a half-dozen to a dozen people.
But, O’Keefe said the program grew until there were 121 people being housed at five different motels in town.
That makes up 2.75 percent of the Manchester population. If the number gets to 131 people, it will be 3 percent of our population.
About 70 percent of people are being housed at the Chalet and the Econolodge, O’Keefe said, with some people staying at the Palmer House, Weathervane and Four Winds.
“We have had some pretty significant issues with the program,” O’Keefe said.
Chamberlain emphasized at the last board meeting March 9 that she wasn’t against helping people but she had serious concerns.
“It keeps me up at night,” Chamberlain said. “I worry about the safety of the community, I worry about the safety of the police officers, I worry about the children that are being housed there. If this keeps getting extended, I think the risk increases, exponentially.”
Chief among the impacts to the town is the increase in crime the Manchester Police Department is dealing with.
O’Keefe said officers have seen increased crime, including “an influx of drug activity that might be higher than we would see in Manchester otherwise,” as well as breaking and entering and some firearms issues.
“Intelligence suggests we’re seeing some out-of-state gangs showing up in town,” O’Keefe told the board.
“This is the greatest risk to public safety and tranquility in Manchester I’ve seen in 14 years here coming out of this program,” O’Keefe told the board. “This is a real serious issue we have to get our hands around.”
O’Keefe praised MPD Chief Patrick Owens and Lt. James Blanchard.
Blanchard said Wednesday that it’s brought on “an incredible increase in our call volume.”
Calls run the gamut from disturbances to domestic violence to drug activity.
Blanchard said the department is increasing patrols.
Just this past weekend, officers used a tip to get a search warrant for a room and turned up cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin.
An observant officer spotted a suspicious person at another of the five motels earlier in the year and a resulting search warrant also turned up drugs.
O’Keefe said a month ago, the arrests related directly to people in the program, who wouldn’t otherwise be in town, had reached 47.
“Our police department is being taxed and it’s pulling them away from other things in the community they should be focused on,” Chamberlain said.
O’Keefe said conversations with state officials had resulted in the state paying some overtime to the MPD for extra police patrols.
Other concerns about the program are that people are living in tiny motel rooms design for a night or two, but some have been there for a year.
There are families with children staying in rooms with a bathroom but no kitchen facilities.
“The standards that are being seen right now are really substandard,” O’Keefe said. “It’s subsistence living at the very best. The conditions are deplorable.”
Select Board members weren’t sure it was even that good.
Chamberlain said she was concerned about the kids.
O’Keefe said there are 26 children among the 121 people, most of which were at the Chalet.
He said there were people living in short-term lodging facilities without washers or dryers, kitchens and living in 400 square feet of space.
“We’re talking about long-term residences in a lodging unit,” O’Keefe said.
Board member Todd Nebraska was pointed in his remarks.
“The state has basically set up tenement housing in Manchester,” Nebraska said.
Board chair Ivan Beattie asked if the kids were going to school, and if so, were they tuitioned into local schools?
“Twenty-six children would be a lot of children to absorb,” Beattie said. “That’s a huge impact.”
He also pointed that Bennington, which has seen about 130-140 participants in the program is better equipped to tackle that number of people with a hospital and social service agencies.
“There’s a lot of disparity here of what Manchester offers and can afford to offer,” Beattie said.
O’Keefe pointed out that even with the larger number of participants, that only amounted to less than 1 percent of Bennington’s population.
He said Londonderry and Pownal have much smaller population of people staying in local lodging establishments.
“Manchester has the largest impact as far as the number of people as a percentage of our population,” O’Keefe said. “Manchester is shouldering an inordinate amount of the burden.”
And it’s clear many of the people are coming from outside the area.
O’Keefe said a homeless survey showed 77-130 homeless people in the entire county.