Vermont communities clear out campsites in the woods, but unhoused residents say they have nowhere else to go
Down a hill from an office park in White River Junction is a campsite tucked away in the woods. It’s beneath a highway corridor, on land owned by the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
There’s a small green cabin next to a covered cooking area. Inside is a bed on a raised platform, neatly made. Battery-powered lights dangle overhead.
Keith Ingalls lives here. He’s in his mid-30s, with a boyish face. He’s tried to clean the place up — he wants it to look presentable. He’s clear though, this is not where he wants to be.
“I don’t enjoy living like this,” he said. “I still want to do better. I still want to succeed. This is not how I want to live. This is just unfortunately where I’m at, at this point in time.”
Ingalls has lived in White River Junction for a few years, and only started camping during the pandemic.
“Before this, I worked at a movie theater,” he said. “When the pandemic hit, that was one of the first things they shut down.”
He lost his job and from there, everything spiraled. He lost his housing. And he has a criminal record, so he doesn’t qualify for most low-income apartments and state housing vouchers.
Having this place to live has helped him get by and stay safe as colder weather approaches. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if he has to leave. And that’s been a big concern recently.
"This is not how I want to live. This is just unfortunately where I’m at, at this point in time.”
Under Hartford’s town policy, if someone complains about a campsite in what’s deemed a high-sensitivity area, like state land in a highway corridor, the town can notify landowners. Because having an unpermitted structure on public or private land — like a tent or hut or trailer — is not legal, according to Tracy Yarlott-Davis, the town manager.
“I have to do my due diligence in my role as town manager to apply those rules,” she said.
This fall, for the first time in her eight-month tenure, Yarlott-Davis signed off on letters to three landowners after receiving complaints about campsites in the woods.
The notices went to a hydroelectric company, the Agency of Transportation, and a private company, “[to] make them aware that we were aware that we did have an obligation,” said Yarlott-Davis.
They all wrote back that they wanted the campsites taken down.
The problem with doing this in Hartford though is that many people experiencing homelessness say they have nowhere else to go.
Some campers have been kicked out of the local motels and hotels participating in the state’s emergency housing program for bad behavior.
Others say they don’t feel comfortable staying in a motel where they might be around drug use or at risk of getting COVID. And a few people want to be out in the woods.
No one knows exactly how many people are unhoused in Hartford. It might be 10, or it could be closer to 20. The town health officer, Brett Mayfield, says whatever the number is, it’s a lot higher than it was a few years ago.
“Because of all the state and nonprofit services that are here in Hartford, we draw a large amount of people that might be in jeopardy in the public health realm,” he said.
One of those big nonprofit services is the Upper Valley Haven. They provide shelter and housing support to hundreds of families and adults in the area, as well as a daily food shelf and public showers.
But they’ve had to cut their shelter capacity in half since the pandemic.
“So four families instead of eight, 10 adults instead of 20, just to keep separation,” said Michael Redmond, the director of the Haven.
"Anybody who needs help should give us a call. We're always going to answer the phone.”
Redmond said they’re not going to have a cold-weather shelter this winter, as they had before the pandemic. There’s no space to socially distance.
He plans to raise money to build a new low-barrier shelter in the next year or so, where people could stay overnight, even if they’re inebriated, as long as they don’t harm others or the property.
In the meantime, the Haven has set aside extra money in their budget for motel rooms for those in need.
"Anybody who needs help should give us a call,” he said. “We're always going to answer the phone.”
For its part, the town has been actively trying to find solutions to support people who are homeless. A task force formed to look at this in 2019.
They’ve gone through all sorts of ideas, like trying to find property where people could set up shelter or an RV with access to bathrooms and showers.
“Frankly, I feel like we've kind of gone around and around,” said Bryan Luikart, the chair of the task force. “You have opposition to most locations or you have practical issues, actually being able to get water and sewer to a place.”
Recently, the task force has proposed extending how long people can stay in an RV, which right now is capped at 14 days in Hartford. So far though, the idea hasn’t gotten much traction. They’re basically back to where they started.
“There's really not a place where somebody can camp without the fear of having to be evicted or moved,” Luikart said.
"There's really not a place where somebody can camp without the fear of having to be evicted or moved."
Other communities in Vermont have made more progress to decriminalize camping for people who have nowhere else to sleep.
In Montpelier, the city council recently voted to allow emergency camping on public property, as long as it doesn’t interfere with public health and safety or cause environmental impacts, which can be a big "if."
It’s not a perfect solution. But so far, city officials say, it’s gone well. No one’s been asked to relocate.
Back in Hartford, several people who were kicked out of their campsites have found new places to set up shelters in neighboring towns, further away from many social services. Someone’s staying in a trailer in a church parking lot, until they have to move on.
Keith Ingalls was not asked to leave his campsite. He’s still there.
What he really wants to do is find work where he can be out on the road, like a truck driver.
“That would be my goal,” Ingalls said. “It would be great for me. That’s what I like to do. That would be like not work.”
When he’s driving he doesn’t listen to music or the radio. He likes to sit with his thoughts and focus on the road. He just wants someone to give him a chance to get there.
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.