Tensions were high at the Montpelier City Council meeting on September 25th, 2019. The cause of the unrest? The Bethany Warming Shelter extension.
Many people spoke in the meeting, some from the Good Samaritan Haven, or “Good Sam,” along with people from the newly formed Homeless Task Force.
The Homeless Task Force consists of people with various roles to address the concern of homelessness in Montpelier. They proposed to open the shelter a month early. This would move the opening date up to October 15 instead of November 15.
At first glance, the idea seemed sound and would make a difference in the lives of 20 people who didn’t have a home in which to sleep. However, the more the budget was examined, the more issues popped up. The most pressing topics were money and staffing.
On Wednesday the 24th of September the Homeless Task Force had held their first meeting. They believed quick action was called for so they went to the City Council meeting the next night. There was no time to “warn” their topic, or add it to the official agenda.
Their proposal started, “We came together of one mind with the request in front of you.” They then went on to stress the urgency of the situation. However the proposal was met with some pushback. Later, Mayor Anne Watson said, “They came up for the budget of this two hours ago, literally on the back of a napkin.”
What was the budget’s cost? $10,000.
A concerned citizen, Steven Whitaker, brought up the point that time was of the essence, and the shelter needed to be opened sooner than the next council meeting. The other side argued money moves slowly, and for a poorly planned budget it was unrealistic to give $10,000 on such short notice. The city carefully budgets for every year, and each budget year starts in the summer, and then ends twelve months later. It is named for the spring that it ends in, so this year is fiscal year 2020.
In order to budget for $10,000 to open the shelter early it would need to be part of the fiscal year’s budget. However, it couldn’t be added in mid year, so it would have had to be for the next fiscal year, 2021.
Watson said, “This item came up so fast that it was not put on our agenda nor was it an addendum”after the Homeless Task Force made a proposal heard during “general businesses and appearances.”
As the September meeting progressed, people’s fuses grew shorter and shorter. The first outburst made by a member of the Task Force, Ken Russel, was directed at Whitaker. Speaking to the council about Whitaker, Russel said, “Mr. Whitaker doesn’t respect boundaries.”
The council was familiar with Whitaker’s outbursts due to the fact that he frequently voiced his strong opinions at previous meetings. Russel then went on to say in a short tone, “stand back please.” Later in the meeting, there were opinions thrown back and forth between Whitaker and the board members.
With all the fuss and lack of preparation the council decided to push the final decision on the budget back to October 9th, which led to a second, more tense, and much louder meeting.
The October 9th agenda item started off like any other, with the mayor Anne Watson introducing the subject, “On to discussing the Bethany Warming Shelter extension…” The City Council members, the Task Force and the representatives from Good Samaritan Haven discussed how, why and when the Bethany Warming Shelter could be opened. Within 30 minutes, people were called rude and the opening date was pushed back. The controversial issue brought up many minor unrelated topics that bogged the discussion down.
The first speaker who addressed the City Council was a representative from Good Sam. He brought the specific numbers for the budget along with the issues related to opening early. One of the main points was that the shelter needed people to staff it who had experience and were okay working “the graveyard shift.” “We acknowledge that a very ambitious goal would be to get it open in the next few weeks,” the representative said.
The wording of that statement was already making the idea of opening October 15th seem farther away. He continued to say that a more likely opening date was about 2 weeks early, around November 1st.
This public discussion at the Montpelier city council raised many questions. However, in the end, the final vote, 5-1 granted the $10,000. The money was put to use and the shelter ended up opening earlier in spite of all the setbacks and controversy. Watson later said the thought was,“do what you can, open a little early if you can, here’s a little money to do that.”
How do we take care of people who don’t have a home?
What constitutes an emergency?
How do we have difficult conversations without involving our emotions too much?