Patchworks Place needs new location to open this year

Editor’s note: This article was used with permission from News & Citizen.

The Lamoille County Continuum of Care is working with St. John’s in the Mountains Episcopal Church and Capstone Community Action in seeking state funding and obtaining permits to establish a warming shelter and resource center in Morrisville. In their efforts to obtain local permits to develop Patchworks Place at 197 Harrel St., the Morristown Development Review Board denied the organizations, because it couldn’t get around the zoning bylaws. If the Continuum still wants to open by Dec. 1, they’ll have to find a different site.

The proposed lot, owned by Sonny Demars is located in an industrial zone, and after carefully combing through the conditional uses allowed in that zone, it was determined that this type of project would not fit.

“Years ago, when the Planning and Zoning Commission evaluated the zone,” said Morristown Development Review Board Chair Gary Nolan at a hearing on Oct. 22, “it was determined that we needed much more industrial space. The only conditional use that this project will fit under is a Group Home, and unfortunately, if you read the definitions, a group home is only allowed in a residential area or mixed-use district in the village. I think those are the only two areas in town where this use can take place. I’m not sure how to handle this application. We really don’t have any way of taking any testimony on this today.”

Nolan said that after attending the informational meeting that St. Johns in the Mountains Episcopal Church and Capstone Community Action held at the Most Holy Name Of Jesus Parish on October 15, he was glad that someone was trying to tackle this project as he feels it is really needed in this community. However, unless someone has an ingenious solution to getting around the zoning bylaws, he cannot even consider the application.

There is no ability to put beds on the site Capstone is looking at. The only residential uses allowed in an industrial zone are childcare facilities, and the only reason Nolan’s house is located within the industrial zone, across from the proposed warming shelter location, is that it was built before the zone changed.

If Capstone and the Continuum can find a new location, Patchworks Place will be a low barrier warming shelter where services will be offered to assist the homeless into permanent residences.

The idea of a low barrier shelter is that even adults with substance abuse issues will be allowed into the shelter, provided they follow the rules, and don’t use while there. Patchworks Place may require a Breathalyzer at the door, and will refer people who are intoxicated to either the police station or Copley Hospital to dry out. If they agree to stay dry, they can stay at the shelter and receive services.

The hope is that this shelter will have two paid staff members, a site director and volunteer coordinator, and the rest of the work will be done by volunteers, with at least two available to do overnights.

The closest similar project to Patchworks Place is Good Samaritan Haven, Inc. in Barre, but that warming shelter is located in the middle of a residential zone.

“Is there any time that you would add something to your zoning bylaws?” asked Christine Johnson, field director of the Vermont Agency of Human Services. “What we want to do doesn’t seem to fit into the box that you all have…being in an industrial area was one of our selling points, because it was not in the middle of a lot of houses. I mean, [Nolan] you are a neighbor, so you know the proximity. Not only were there not a lot of homes, but the location is also smack dab in the middle of all the services that our clientele could walk to, which begs the question of how do we change the bylaws?”

The Lamoille County Continuum of Care is a collective of community-based organizations working collaboratively to assess housing needs and implement strategies to help residents secure housing that is safe, decent and affordable. Partners in this program include Capstone Community Action, Lamoille County Mental Health, Community Health Services of Lamoille County, Lamoille Family Center, St. John’s in the Mountains Episcopal Church in Stowe, United Way of Lamoille Valley, Lamoille Restorative Center, Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, Clarina Howard Nichols Center, the Vermont Center for Independent Living, and the Vermont Department for Children and Families.

In Lamoille County, temporary warming shelter resources are limited and on Jan. 28, 2015, there were 31 people identified as meeting the federal definition of homelessness in Lamoille County. In the past, the homeless residents of Lamoille County have either traveled to Washington or Chittenden counties in a crisis, providing beds were available, or they accessed limited hotels and motels in the area with emergency General Assistance (GA) funds from the state. In fiscal year 2015 in Morrisville, there were 57 single households granted emergency housing in motels through the Department of Children and Families Economic Division.

“In early 2015, it was announced that going forward, we were no longer going to be relying on motels as an option as a state solution to encountering homelessness,” said Christine Johnson, field director of the Agency of Human Services for the state of Vermont. “Originally we said, in good state form, that we were just going to be done at the end of this fiscal year, and a lot of communities said ‘absolutely not. We will not have enough time to get things in place for winter 2015.’”

The state budget for putting homeless people up in motels is $2.3 million and the state was spending almost $4.5 million. The state was way overshooting the budget, and the motels were not helping to get people back on the right track.

The state decided that they’d give communities an interim year to work on a solution to not having motels available in fiscal year 2017.

Continuum members have identified the need for a warming shelter and resource center in Lamoille County as part of their solution to helping residents who are experiencing a housing crisis or homelessness get back on their feet. With Capstone as a lead agency, the continuum has submitted a funding request to the state to support this community resource.

As fall turns to winter, the need for this shelter is ever more present.

Nine months ago, the conversation about establishing a warming shelter in Lamoille County began, so Father Rick Swanson of St. John’s in the Mountains contacted Scott Johnson, director of the Lamoille Family Center to ask for his help. In discussion, it was decided they should have a facility where people could get a shower, restrooms, a cup of coffee, and a place to sleep as well as washer and dryer facilities to clean their clothes.

The shelter would only allow adults ages 18 and above, because homeless children are usually housed by DCF, if they know about them.

“As far as families go,” said Tracy Collier, state coordinator of family matters at Central Vermont Community Action Council, “we have housing counselors that work with families. We meet weekly to talk about families and their needs, and to try to get them into rapid rehousing, leasing in their own name.”

According to Tom Younkman, staff member at Vermont Center for Independent Living, they are also talking about establishing satellite homes in the future, where families can stay with host families temporarily until they can find more stable housing.

The low-barrier warming shelter will be paid for and maintained through private donors as well as state funding and Capstone funds.

The Continuum is still working a lot out as any volunteers will need to be trained, and they want to assure their volunteers won’t get burnt out with the facility being open 365 days a year. The goal is to get all of the services under one roof that people will need to get out of homelessness.

Development Review Board member John Goss said that if Capstone finds a new location in Morrisville, that is zoned as either commercial or residential, the board would be happy to approve it, but as it stands, the proposal is out of the board’s reach. Planning and Zoning Administrator Todd Thomas has agreed to work with Capstone to find another zone that would work for them. Once a new site is found, Capstone will have to go back in front of the review board for approval.