BARRE — Representatives of central Vermont’s only homeless shelter this week got the clarity they wanted and the operational flexibility they needed to strategically open the doors of the Good Samaritan Haven during the day without technically violating the overnight shelter’s 30-year-old permit.
The Development Review board ended a busy Thursday night meeting by unanimously approving the shelter’s abridged request — one that allayed the concerns of some neighbors and officially permitted what members were told the city was allowing anyway.
Specifically, the board created a “cold weather exception” that — when conditions are right — will allow the shelter to stray from the 6:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. operating hours that have technically been in place since it opened on Seminary Street in 1986.
According to board member Patrick Clarke’s carefully worded motion, the shelter will be permitted to allow clients in during the day when the temperature dips below 20 degrees, or it is less than 32 degrees and “precipitation is present.”
The board also created a separate exception for state-observed holidays between Nov. 1 and March 31 and agreed to allow Good Samaritan staff to provide on-site case management services to the shelter’s homeless clients between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. year-round.
The board’s unanimous decision was something of a surprise given the conversation that preceded its only closed-door deliberative session on an evening when it heard seven separate requests and approved all but one of them.
Though members generally seemed supportive of the portion of the request that would enable the shelter to open its doors early during extreme winter weather conditions, some, like Chairman Ulysse “Pete” Fournier and David Hough, were openly leery of a plan to add scheduled case management.
Fournier said his fear was the board was being asked to make a forever decision involving a once-controversial project based on the recent track record of the shelter’s board and the performance of its current executive director, Brooke Jenkins.
“My concern is if we grant you exceptions, once the barn door opens there’s no getting it closed,” Fournier told Jenkins, noting the board wasn’t being asked to permit an executive director.
“What happens when you leave?” he asked.
Hough was even more blunt – echoing a sentiment that was expressed more than 30 years ago when a much earlier version of the board denied a permit for the shelter, prompting a successful legal appeal.
“I think there’s enough service in the city as it is,” he said, worrying that complaints that people “hanging out” smoking cigarettes in front of the shelter would be exacerbated by the requested change.
“It’s going to be a scene all day,” he said.
Jenkins and Fire Marshall Matt Cetin argued the requested changes could actually reduce the activities some in the neighborhood have complained about.
According to Cetin, people often gather in front of the shelter because they are waiting to go in before it opens in the evening and the case management is already occurring.
“You’re really not going to see a change when you say ‘yes’ to this because it’s already going on,” he told skeptical board members.
Linda Shambo was one of them.
She said she had no trouble with the requested “cold weather exception,” but was struggling to justify expanding the permitted use beyond an emergency shelter.
Jenkins explained that meeting one-on-one with clients was “critically important” to assisting them in finding employment and permanent housing.
“When you just provide shelter and a meal, that does nothing to address the causes of homelessness,” she said.
Despite some critical comments and open skepticism, board members unanimously approved Jenkins’ request after meeting privately with Cetin for more than 30 minutes.
Board members did agree to prohibit smoking in front of the shelter, require clients to wait in the rear of the building instead of on the sidewalk out front and restricted parking to a nearby lot at the base of Seminary Hill.
After speaking with neighbors, Jenkins asked the board to postpone action on companion requests that clients who work nights be permitted to sleep in during the day and group activities be allowed on occasion.
The decision to shelve those requests satisfied at least two neighboring property owners who sent a letter to the board withdrawing their previous objections. A third neighbor sent a letter expressing her continued concern while Mayor Thomas Lauzon provided a letter in support of the change.
Lauzon, who attended the meeting for two other requests, left long before talk turned to the shelter.
Lauzon obtained the board’s permission to relocate one of the Elm Street curb cuts to the parking area behind The Cornerstone restaurant, and raze the now-vacant Civil War-era Prospect Street structure that was the longtime home of R.L. Clark’s Feed Store and briefly housed an outlet for Aubuchon Hardware.
Lauzon, who acquired the property for $185,000 last year, said he has agreed to sell it for $165,000 to the owners of the nearby Blanchard Block for use as a parking lot. He said he would retain a 30-foot easement across the property — providing an extra entrance to his Metro Way complex and, potentially, a planned leg of a regional bike path.