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Burlington mayor discusses shelter pods and incoming city council

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger
Pat Bradley
/
WAMC
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger

Burlington, Vermont’s mayor and city council have been addressing a number of issues including a goal to end homelessness in the city. Democrat Miro Weinberger, who has been mayor for nearly 10 years, recently spoke to WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley about a soon-to-be implemented project to create a shelter pod community in the city.

The council voted on committing about $3 million of our ARPA funds to a variety of homelessness initiatives. Included in those initiatives were funding for the shelter pod community and this co-located community resource center. So this manufactured facility that would allow people to, it essentially serves as a day station, a place for people to go during the day and receive services. When there was an approval, when we had that approval, if you look at the materials there was a belief that we would be leverage other dollars. The council approval did not pay for the entire bill on those facilities. And so we were very much hoping and working towards also receiving this congressionally directed spending towards the community resource center. And we’re excited that that worked.

Now shelter pods are a fairly new idea. I believe Burlington is the first community in Vermont to consider erecting these things. So how exactly do they work?

Yeah, I mean it’s a pretty straightforward concept. These are very small manufactured structures of 60 to 120 square feet. They are basic but they have enough amenities for it certainly to be a dignified place for someone to stay and certainly much better than some kind of improvised encampment. I think you are right that Burlington is the first Vermont community to build these. But I will tell you mayors from around the country are taking this step right now. Many of them are using these federal dollars to create these communities. I think there’s something like 70 cities that are in one stage or another of creating one of these shelter pod communities. They will be professionally laid out. There will be additional site amenities that again they’re being co-located with this essentially common facility where people will be able to go to get meals and access to other services and be able to plug in phones. There will be central bathrooms. There’s not a bathroom in each unit. The units are big enough for essentially a bed and a place to sit. So they’re very modest. They’re intended to be a emergency shelter, a place for people to stay and a place to sit and get help while we are working with them where we are also making investments in terms of our social service working with these individuals to help them access more permanent long term housing.

Now...

Not only is it supposed to be temporary for the individuals, emergency shelter for the individuals, it’s also it’s not a facility that we envision needing forever. It’s being permitted as something that will be there for 36 months. If and when, and I do think it’s a question of when, we get our chronic homelessness challenge back down to where it was a few years ago and even lower with our desire to essentially end, functionally end homelessness we won’t need a facility like this anymore.

There were some residents, neighboring residents, making some comments during public comments saying we weren’t notified of this. And I think they were more concerned about not being notified. What was the process? Did you have any outreach prior to the media going to these people?

So, this is a decision that is moving quickly. We announced that we were going this direction last December and we want to have this facility up and running in July. So we’re in a situation where essentially we’re dealing with an emergency crisis and we need to move quickly. Certainly the Community and Economic Development Office made attempts to inform as the decision was being made that we were going to go forward with this location. There were attempts to touch base with everyone who should have been notified. I think there were some gaps in that. Here’s the good news though. We are going through a number of public processes before this facility opens. So there is considerable opportunity between now and July for people to weigh in in those formal permitting processes and well as through community stakeholders processes that we’re setting up to give input into how this facility will be managed. One thing, and I understand people being concerned and having questions. That’s totally fair. What I am, this is not the first time in my 10 years where we’ve opened a low barrier facility like this in the downtown. I mean this one has some unique features to it but we had a low barrier facility at the former Ethan Allan Club one winter. We had a low barrier facility on Winooski Avenue, you know right around from the FedEx office, for a number of years. Those facilities served very much the same kind of population that we believe we’ll be helping with this facility. This facility will have more services and resources and 24-hour staffing than those past facilities did. I am confident that we are going to bring professional management and I am very optimistic we are going to have a similar record. We didn’t have issues with those facilities and we’re going to work very hard to make sure that that continues with this facility and if issues do arise we will be responsive to them and work to address them.

You have a new City Council coming in. It still will be controlled by the Progressives. What’s your anticipation with this new City Council?

You know people say that and it’s not exactly right in a couple respects. I mean first of all the progressives have 6 votes on a 12 person council. So there’s a plurality but a not a majority of Progressives. You’ve heard me say this before pretty much throughout the decade I’ve been mayor we have had a situation where for me to succeed and get anything done in our strong mayor-strong city council form of government where there needs to be 7 votes to get just about anything done I’ve had to work across partisan lines to get those 7 votes. And we’ve been very successful in many ways in building consensus across those party lines for the last decade. Admittedly the last couple years there have been some additional challenges. There are clearly areas of disagreement particularly around public safety where we’ve had a hard time coming to consensus. I am hopeful that after all the events of the last couple years and after you know the Progressives essentially have acknowledged that the decision to cut the police department by 30 percent was wrong and needed to be corrected I’m hopeful that in the next couple years there going to be more consensus than there has been in the last couple. I will always work towards that and I also will continue to defend what I believe is right and place a very high priority keeping this community safe. I think it’s going to be a different council than we’ve seen in the last couple years. I think just the mood of the community is different. We’ll have to see. We’ll start soon. The State of the City is Monday.

Any teaser or preview of that?

Um, I’m still writing it so no. It’s going to be exciting to be in person for the first time in two years. So that’s a teaser. Come be part of it in person.

Burlington’s new city council will be sworn in Monday, and Mayor Weinberger will deliver his State of the City address.