By MADELINE HUGHES
Sitting to the west of one of Vermont’s busiest highways with Lake Champlain as a backdrop is a motel with a mission. The 59-room Echno Lodge was bought by Champlain Housing Trust in 2013 and renamed Harbor Place.
The goal is to help people moving from homelessness to a home.
Today, Harbor Place is run as a motel by property managers who check residents in and out, and a cleaning staff that maintains and the motel and the rooms. Working as a team, the staff also supports the community culture of the motel.
While the front desk functions similarly to one in a hotel, people also approach it to drop off food; residents rendezvous with social workers there or check on the status of their stay.
Not unlike at a hotel, residents come in to get coffee from a communal pot. However, instead of fliers for tourist attractions in the lobby, the bulletin board displays resources for child care, educational opportunities, drug treatment programs and library information.
On a recent morning behind the front desk, cleaning staff are busy gathering materials for the day, and social workers are discussing plans to help people find new long-term homes..
The clientele at Harbor Place are referred to the motel by local social service organizations that contract with Champlain Housing Trust.
A guest at Harbor Place could be referred there by UVM Medical Center, Steps to End Domestic Violence or the Howard Center, among other agencies.
Case workers from Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity meet with their clients living at the motel to help them secure housing. Sometimes it works.
“This is not a basic shelter,” explained Michael Ohler, the guest and resident services coordinator at Harbor Place. “The expectation is for guests to be working on their situation with the help of housing advocates. They work with these housing case managers to find permanent housing and to work on the issues that got them here.”
Ohler is new to Harbor Place. Champlain Housing Trust created his intermediary position earlier this year with funding from KeyBank. He is an on-site social worker who collaborateswith case workers from Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity and Steps to End Domestic Violence, along with Harbor Place property managers.
A unique opportunity
Ohler came to this new position after working for 17 years in the Burlington area as a case manager for the Committee on Temporary Shelter and the Burlington Housing Authority, and as an instructor at the Community College of Vermont and an occasional adjunct professor at St. Michael’s College, where he currently teaches sociology and human services courses.
He saw the move to Harbor Place as a unique opportunity that went above and beyond what he did as a case manager.
Ohler explained that at its essence, Harbor Place is a step-up program to give people an opportunity to work on the challenges they had, and to find permanent housing.
“People were cycling in and out,” Ohler explained. “The crux of the mission of this place, and my position, is to stop that cycle.”
Housing advocates can’t always check on and meet with clients in their rooms, nor can they continue to have contact with clients once a client secures a home. So, Ohler’s position bridges that gap.
“It’s nice to be able to help offer a fuller service because case workers are more office-bound,” Ohler said. “I can go to a room and knock on the door and ask someone about missing meetings. I have a pretty wide scope.”
Case managers such as Emily Taylor, a housing advocate for Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, agree.
“With Mike based at Harbor Place every day of the week, case managers have access to someone whose purpose is to be there to work with clients when we cannot,” Taylor said. “The property managers on site collaborate with us as well. But being able to work with Mike — with his extensive knowledge of and experience in housing and barriers to the population with whom we work — is an added benefit.
“Some clients work full time, some clients are inundated with medical appointments, and some clients experiencing manifestations of intense mental illness simply can’t get themselves to housing meetings,” Taylor said. “Mike is there to introduce them to the process and the work that needs to be done, and reminds them that having the support of a housing advocate can make the process that much easier.”
Ohler explained that property managers and staff members Frank Lenti, Raj Shah, Steve Crawford and Todd Lavigne help round out the Harbor Place staff. They run the front desk and do maintenance around the property, while Ohler builds relationships with clients to foster the social work aspect of Harbor Place.
Their day-to-day jobs are relatively broad, however, with each taking on various tasks.
“People just walk up here and talk to us like we are their bartender or hairdresser,” Lavigne said, pointing to the front desk. “Now with Mike on board the physically transitioning people (to permanent homes) it allows for more follow through.”
“My back and truck can speak to that,” he said.
Ohler bought a truck while working for the Burlington Housing Authority. He had always wanted one, and it was handy to have a personal truck to help move people, he said. Now, he continues to use it in his work at Harbor Place.
Earlier this week, as Lenti was helping a woman carrying donated food, Shah was handing a man and his child some candy at the front desk. Lavigne was filling the coffee pot.
“The property managers are doing their own brand of social work,” Ohler said.
Everyone in the office agreed that seeing people get permanent homes and working out issues makes the tough job worth it.
“There was a family staying here who transitioned into an apartment,” Lavigne said. “Now, they are buying a house. It’s stories like that which help keep us going day-to-day.”
Cold weather = crisis
As winter sets in, it will become harder to help Harbor Place clients who might check in for a short time. To help get more people off the street, those in social services give out more housing vouchers during frigid temperatures.
“During adverse weather conditions, we get a lot of people and a lot of check-outs at a higher volume,” Lavigne said. “It’s harder to do the stable work.”
Clients can stay anywhere from one night to six months, depending the housing vouchers given out by social service agencies, Lavigne explained. Many vouchers are for 28 days and then must be renewed, he added.
“Even 28 days working with a housing applicant isn’t a lot of time,” Ohler said.
There is a bright spot, though. The early part of winter brings the holidays. Ohler and the Harbor Place staff all said they and their guests are especially grateful to the community for the donations that come in, especially this time of year.
“They are so good to this place,” Ohler said. “Nearly every day, there is someone here dropping off food or clothes.”
Once January comes, donations trail off. However, when people ask, Ohler suggests bus passes, something many don’t usually think to donate.
Harbor Place will never turn away food – especially fresh produce – microwavable products and and bus passes for Green Mountain Transit, Lavigne said.
“Sometimes, we take it for granted that we are on the bus line, but that $1.25 to get into town could be someone’s last $1.25,” Ohler said.
Harbor Place also accepts toiletries, rolls of quarters for laundry, gas station gift cards, and is currently accepting winter outerwear.
Harbor Place has been a refuge where vulnerable individuals can stay while transitioning to permanent homes for five years now. Champlain Housing Trust opened the renovated motel for social service clients in November 2013, a few weeks after purchasing the property.
The motel’s relationship with the town has not always been easy. In 2015, the town issued a “notice of violation” to Champlain Housing Trust, stating that Harbor Place did not comply with zoning regulations. The organization appealed and the Development Review Board ruled Harbor Place was within the zoning regulations.
In January, the facility made headlines when a machete-wielding man attacked a volunteer delivering Meals On Wheels to Harbor Place. The victim suffered a leg injury and the attacker – who was not living at Harbor Place – was sentenced to remain in jail through the end of this year.
Although first responders are called to Harbor Place regularly for what often are minor disputes and medical emergencies, Shelburne Police say they have seen a decrease in the overall call volume over time.
“We’ve learned to work with each other,” Cpl. Jon Marcoux said, adding that the Police Department today has a more comprehensive response than it did when Harbor Place was new.
“They’ve added social workers, and we’ve added the community outreach position,” Marcoux said, referring to the program Shelburne joined earlier this year with Howard Center to address mental health and substance abuse issues with professional social workers working alongside law enforcement.
Chris Donnelly, director of community relations at Champlain Housing Trust, agreed that the atmosphere has improved. He said he hopes to meet with Interim Town Manager Lee Krohn soon to continue working on the relationship.