Burlington City Council approves winter shelter at former VFW

A building on the corner of a street.
The former Veterans of Foreign Wars building on South Winooski Avenue in Burlington. Photo by Patrick Crowley/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — The Burlington City Council approved a plan on Tuesday night to turn the former Veterans of Foreign Wars building into a cold-weather shelter this winter.

The warming shelter will be funded with a $590,023 state grant from the Agency of Human Services and will run from December 15 until March 15, 2024. Tuesday night’s council action also included the approval of a new city position to manage the shelter, which will also rely on temporary staffing.

It will have a capacity of 30 people, though that number could be expanded for extreme weather, according to Sarah Russell, Burlington’s special assistant to end homelessness.

Speaking before the council, Russell outlined the current state of people experiencing homelessness in the city and the need for the winter shelter. The number of unhoused people in the city is now over 200, she said.

“The lack of a formal emergency warming shelter within the city is the reason why we intend to open a winter overnight shelter to ensure prevention of exposure deaths during the coldest months of the year,” Russell said during a virtual press conference held earlier in the day on Tuesday.

Mayor Miro Weinberger said approval of the shelter would “further expand the city’s capacity and commitment to action” to address homelessness.

During the earlier press conference on Tuesday, Weinberger said the rise in homelessness was a housing problem caused by “decades of flawed land use policy and mistakes.”

“Burlington, for a decade now, has been doing everything we can to reverse these trends,” Weinberger said. “And we are succeeding at those efforts right now. There are 990 homes that are either built or have recently been completed.”

After the warming shelter is closed next March, the property is slated to undergo a redevelopment. Champlain Housing Trust is expected to begin a new affordable housing project at the site. 

The proposal passed the council by a vote of 10-1 with one absence. 

Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, was the sole opposing vote. He expressed concerns with the shelter’s location.

“This is not a well-thought-out proposal from my perspective,” Dieng said.

Dieng cited the Elmwood Avenue emergency shelters, or “pods,” as leading to increased crime in the area and worried about the same with the warming shelter.

Councilor Mark Barlow, I-North District, supported the shelter proposal but shared some of Dieng’s concerns, saying it “adds an additional stressor to an already stressful situation” in downtown Burlington. 

But with state funding apparently tied to the VFW building, according to Barlow, and the short time until winter, Barlow said he would set aside the concerns and vote in favor.

Melo Grant, P-Central District, said she was “befuddled” by the response by some business owners against the winter shelter, pointing out that those owners often complain about people sleeping in doorways and alcoves to escape the elements.

“They can sleep in this alcove or they can sleep in this building,” Grant said, referring to the VFW building. “Which do you prefer?”

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