Originally printed in the Addison Independent on Monday, 12/02/2019
By: John Flowers
MIDDLEBURY — A growing homeless population continues to strain the limited resources of the Middlebury Police Department, to the extent that the local selectboard is asking legislators to devote more state resources to affected communities and the underlying causes of homelessness — including mental illness and substance abuse.
In a trend that Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said started around a year and a half ago, the town has seen an influx of homeless individuals that he said hail from states like Washington, New York and Missouri. These folks, he said, have heard good things about the Middlebury community and have been availing themselves of local services — including food
and shelter. He said some of these visitors — as well as native Middlebury-area homeless — are dealing with mental health and/or substance abuse challenges, and it’s up to police to respond to related disturbances and steer individuals to detox, counseling, shelters or in some cases, jail. Since Addison County doesn’t have a detox facility, incapacitated persons must receive such services in Rutland or Burlington, and it’s up to Middlebury police to transport them, according to Hanley. And that takes two officers off their regular duties — one to drive, the other to monitor the passenger — who might be combative, he said.
Compounding the problem is that Addison is the only county in the state to not have a designed “screener” — someone qualified to check an incapacitated person’s health status and make a determination on whether the individual can be referred to a local shelter or must receive more complex services outside of the county, according to Hanley. Hanley conveyed his concerns to the Middlebury selectboard in October, and again on Nov. 19 as part of a meeting with the community’s legislative delegation. Those present included Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Bristol; Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury; Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury; and Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury.
“We’ll keep doing it, but we have other problems in town that need attention,” Hanley said of the transports. Adding to Hanley’s concerns is that Middlebury PD has three officers assigned to reduced duties because they’re rehabbing from work-related injuries. Until they complete rehab, they are largely confined to clerical and dispatch duties. “It’s killing us” with overtime and staffing obligations, Hanley added.
He acknowledged Middlebury isn’t the only Vermont community facing staffing and budget challenges associated with caring for the homeless. He lamented what he said is an underfunded state mental health system that has resulted in local hospitals — like Porter — having to temporarily house patients due to a shortage of beds at the Vermont State Hospital.
“We are essentially the kid with his finger in the dike,” he said, though Hanley has stressed that the majority of homeless people in Addison County aren’t causing any problems.
Selectman Nick Artim noted a recent case in which a Middlebury officer was asked to help state police with a disruptive, inebriated patient at Porter Hospital. While en route, the Middlebury officer received a call about a local child who had stopped breathing. The officer
diverted to the child’s home, and was able to get the child breathing again, according to Artim.
“Had the police officer been in Rutland or Burlington transporting, the outcome might
have been very different,” Artim said. “It’s a big problem, and not something that will probably
be solved in one (legislative) session.”
Hanley is also worried about the health of homeless individuals whom his officers must
transport. He explained police can’t always determine what their passenger might have ingested
prior to getting into the cruiser.
“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ we lose someone, it’s a matter of ‘when,’” he said. Hanley said he doesn’t like the fact that an incapacitated person must be treated in the same manner as a criminal, in terms of being cuffed and placed into a cruiser.
And the Middlebury chief was candid in his frustration with state government. He was a member of the state’s “Public Inebriate Task Force” back in 2010. State law requires police to take a public inebriate into protective custody, according to Hanley. The task force was charged with advising how the state could create an “accountable, community-based system of screenings, services and supports that connects public inebriates with needed services.”
None of the group’s recommendations — which included getting a screener for Addison County — have been implemented by state government, according to Hanley.
Middlebury had a state-funded screener until the mid-1990s, Hanley said. That person used to meet police at the department and determine how a person in custody should be cared for. The state stopped funding the position during the mid-1990s, according to Hanley. Lawmakers were surprised to hear about the recent influx of homeless persons from other parts of the country.
“I find it really hard to believe the reason people are coming here is because we have all these awesome services,” Hardy said. “What we’ve been hearing is we don’t have enough services.”
Scheu said the state is making strides in creating more beds for folks battling mental illness. She noted the Brattleboro Retreat has agreed to add a new wing for mental health patients, and the Vermont State Hospital is eyeing expansion. But she also acknowledged the new beds might not be available for a couple years.
“We’re navigating the puzzle of where the beds are going to be, how many we need and what kinds of services (need to be offered),” Scheu said. She asked if the county’s law enforcement agencies could collectively finance a screener that
might be based in the Addison County Sheriff’s Department headquarters in Middlebury.
Selectman Victor Nuovo said the towns are already financially strapped. “We don’t have the resources to deal with these sorts of social problems that we constantly face,” Nuovo said. He urged lawmakers to make the homeless issue a greater priority.
“One of the primary functions of government is the welfare of the people; well that’s all the people, and not just the ones enfranchised to vote,” Nuovo said. Selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter said lawmakers should consider tapping
Vermont’s local option tax surplus money to help communities care for the homeless. Randy Kritkausky and Carolyn Schmidt own a home that’s right next to the Charter House Coalition’s warming shelter at 27 North Pleasant St. They urged the selectboard to appoint a task force on homelessness that would include local officials, lawmakers, community stakeholders and members of the homeless community.
“Our current situation is truly a case where it will take a village to move forward,” Kritkausky and Schmidt wrote in a recent letter to the selectboard. “A piecemeal approach attempting to solve only one aspect of the issue of homelessness will not only be ineffective, it may unintentionally aggravate the situation.”