Valley News – Hartford’s search for homeless camp hampered by city zoning laws
Published: 05/19/2021 10:56:13 PM
Modified: 05/19/2021 23:51:03
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Members of a city committee who worked to develop a permanent location where homeless people could live say they encountered obstacles, one of the most significant being the restrictions on Hartford on camping.
The Hartford ad hoc committee on emergency shelter, which was named earlier this year by the Selectboard, is calling on the city to relax some of these zoning restrictions, in particular by increasing the number of camping sites allowed in a property off camping for two to four, and allowing homeless people to live in parked RVs. Right now, people can’t stay in an RV or RV in Hartford for more than 14 days a year if it’s not in a licensed campground.
Relaxing zoning restrictions would mean more opportunities for homeless people to find temporary shelter, according to State Representative Becca White, D-Hartford, who sits on the committee and gave a presentation to the Selectboard on Tuesday night. It can also help committee members secure a more permanent location as they talk to local churches about the possibility of setting up RV camps on church property, she said.
The committee’s suggestions follow months of work to develop a permanent shelter for the homeless community somewhere in Hartford. The initial plans included nine individual micro-housing units, which could be installed on municipal or private property – with the owner’s consent – and would include heat and power units, according to former Selectboard member Simon Dennis, who sits on the committee.
However, White said the group had reviewed 106 properties, including public parks and properties owned by schools and cities, as potential shelter sites, but were empty. One of the most promising places, on Christian Street, which the group discussed last month, has also failed, she said.
“I’m very optimistic that there is a way forward, but I don’t see the next clear step,” for the original plan, White said in an interview Wednesday. She explained that in addition to the camping restrictions, committee members ran into a number of other local and state zoning regulations that prohibited them from exploring certain sites. “It’s hard work to get the type of camp we’re talking about.”
White said now is the time to tackle the problem, as Hartford sees its homeless population exploding in the coming months.
Once the state’s motel voucher program, which was put in place to provide shelter to the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic, ends, many people who were staying at these motels will find themselves in homeless again, she said.
Currently 140 people use the voucher program in Hartford alone, and the committee predicts that one-third of them will end up living outside once the program ends. According to White’s presentation, the new homeless population could be three times the city’s historic average.
In addition, a moratorium on evictions put in place during the pandemic is expected to end in July, which could contribute to the population increase.
“We’re on a precipice right now – we’re getting to a point where we’re losing a lot of these potential social safety nets from COVID,” White said at the Selectboard meeting. “We have the opportunity to be proactive where in a few months we may not have the same opportunity.”
The Selecboard made no decision after White’s presentation on Tuesday, but Selectboard chairman Dan Fraser said he and his colleagues would await further comments from the Planning Council.
Anna Merriman can be contacted at [email protected] or 603-727-3216.