MONTPELIER — An ongoing debate concerning whether and where unhoused residents should be allowed to camp on public property took an ironic twist Tuesday night when Parks Commission members, sitting at a picnic table in a clearing at Hubbard Park, cut their conversation short and sought shelter from an approaching storm.
Shelter, or more precisely the lack of enough of it to accommodate those who are homeless in central Vermont, has sparked a spirited discussion in Montpelier, where city officials have proposed an evolving policy designed to create a predictable response to a problem that predated the pandemic. It’s one that is expected to worsen in coming weeks and has fueled an ideological divide among Capital City residents who view the same proposed policy in very different ways.
Some — including some members of the Parks Commission — see it as an “open invitation” to homeless residents without ties to the area. Others view it as a veiled attempt by the city to discourage camping in the community. Still others consider it a suitable compromise that attempts to balance the needs of a vulnerable population and the expectations of tax-paying residents.
All sides — to the extent there are sides — acknowledge the need to address the issue, and no one is professing the proposed policy is the solution.
Viewed as too restrictive by some and too permissive by others, the proposed “encampment response policy” was scheduled to be discussed by the City Council for the first time Wednesday night. Though action was possible, members of the Parks Commission, which made the storm-related decision to table its discussion Tuesday night, urged councilors — there were three in attendance — not to act until after they could make an informed recommendation. The commission has scheduled an emergency meeting at 6 p.m. and plans to pick up where it left off after hearing from Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer, Police Chief Brian Peete and some of the roughly 20 residents who hiked, biked and drove to the park to attend Tuesday night’s outdoor session.
At Niedermayer’s request tonight’s meeting will be in council chambers at City Hall. It won’t be just up the road from the wooded fringe of another clearing in Hubbard Park, where a woman “embarrassed” by her current plight has created a tidy campsite. The tent on a tarp was noticed by some of the residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting as well as by at least one dog walker who didn’t.
Niedermayer may not have noticed the campsite, but her statements made it clear that she saw the plight of that woman and others.
“This policy is trying to put up boundaries around what is already happening,” she told commission members, who expressed varying levels of concern about allowing camping in the city’s parks in general and Hubbard Park in particular.
Niedermayer said Hubbard Park was an obvious option during preliminary staff discussions that were predicated on the notion banning camping was legally untenable given a federal court ruling out of Idaho. Though Hubbard Park doesn’t have running water, it does have four composting toilets, which is better than the alternatives available in other locations that have been identified.
“This isn’t folks who want to camp,” Niedermayer told the commission. “This is an end of options for a lot of folks (and) I would argue morally and legally we should offer a location for people to camp, and this allows us to build parameters around that.”
The question is where?
Parks — Hubbard, North Branch, Blanchard and Elm — under the commission’s purview are included on a short list of locations where camping would be permitted under the proposed policy. In fact, they collectively represent the vast majority of the publicly owned real estate where camping would be allowed. The next largest parcel is Green Mount Cemetery, though only the wooded fringe of the cemetery would be available based on the Cemetery Commission’s recent request that plots, paths and roads be excluded. The same is true of a tiny cemetery on Elm Street.
Niedermayer said she is interested in similar feedback from the parks commission, and didn’t rule out the possibility of further editing the list based on what they have to say.
Niedermayer acknowledged the inclusion of Hubbard Park has generated heated reaction and indicated the commission could recommend camping be precluded in all, or parts of that park.
Commission member Lincoln Frasca wondered whether camping could be allowed from dusk to dawn. While that would be an inconvenience for campers, Niedermayer said the city’s lawyer has indicated time limits would be permissible.
According to Niedermayer, those “political decisions” could be made in the context of the policy, but couldn’t be enforced if one isn’t adopted by the council.
Some on the commission and in the outdoor audience questioned why Montpelier was treating a federal court case in a different district as binding precedent in Vermont and wondered why the city wasn’t establishing a centralized location closer to restrooms and other facilities.
“If we have no way of providing for human waste disposal, I’m afraid of legitimizing camping anywhere in the park,” said Kassia Radzio, the commission’s chairwoman.
Commissioner Andrew Brewer was underwhelmed by what he argued wasn’t a binding court precedent.
“I want to be guided by what the law is right here, right now,” he said.
Brewer said he shared concerns expressed by those worried about the “unintended consequences” of potentially turning Montpelier’s public parks into a magnet for the homeless.
“This is an invitation,” he said, countering a claim Niedermayer made earlier in the evening.
Public comment was mixed, though most who spoke were opposed to at least some aspects of the policy and several expressed concerns about allowing camping in the parks.
With the storm threatening, the commission agreed to defer the potentially complicated discussion of how the policy could be modified to address their concerns until tonight’s emergency meeting. They said they hoped the council would defer action on the policy when it met Wednesday night — affording them an opportunity to provide meaningful feedback.
Councilors Conor Casey and Jay Ericson said they believed that was a reasonable request though neither made any promises.
A week after abruptly endorsing the proposed policy, members of the city’s Homelessness Task Force raised fresh questions about some of its provisions on Wednesday. Among the areas flagged by members include a requirement Washington County Mental Health Services be automatically part of any outreach to campers.
Some suggested that was unnecessary and others noted it was “offensive.”
Also questioned were some of the arbitrary time limits contained in the policy.
Casey attended the task force meeting and reiterated he would not support the council taking action on the policy at its Wednesday night meeting. However, he said, he did believe some version of the policy is needed and should be adopted soon.