Chief: Motel housing homeless during virus straining police

BERLIN, Vt. (AP) — Criminal activity at a central Vermont motel that is serving as a homeless shelter during the coronavirus pandemic is straining the Berlin Police Department, according to its police chief.

“It doesn’t seem to be lessening, it just seems to be getting worse,” Chief James Pontbriand told the select board during a virtual meeting this week, the Times Argus reported. The Hilltop Inn has been the source of a range of criminal activity, from sex and drug offenses to disputes, with 46 complaints this quarter, compared to 41 last year and 12 the year before that, he said.

About 70 to 75 homeless residents are being housed at the motel, he said.

Pontbriand said he understands the need for a broader state program to provide temporary housing in motels for roughly 2,700 homeless residents for several months using federal emergency funding but says the program, while well-intentioned, was ill-conceived and underfunded, the newspaper reported.

Funding to offset the increased police overtime has been a challenge to find, said Town Manager Vince Conti.

“Our small (police) force is receiving nothing except additional calls,” Conti told the Times Argus on Tuesday.

A four-community collaborative, including the Berlin Police Department, was formed to address motel-related problems in Barre, Barre Town, Berlin and Montpelier earlier this year. The initiative covers the cost of 20 hours a week in law enforcement coverage across those communities, funded by the Vermont Department of Children and Families.

While the initiative was “making a dent,” the 20 hours a week is across four communities “not enough,” said Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier.

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UNEMPLOYEMENT JOB-SEARCH REQUIREMENT

Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said Wednesday he estimates that more than 10,000 people receiving unemployment benefits will begin searching for work again next month when the state reinstates the work-search requirement for people getting benefits.

The job-search requirement was suspended last year during the early days of the pandemic when businesses were forced to close.

Starting the week of May 9, unemployed Vermonters must begin searching for work if they plan to file for unemployment benefits the following week, Harrington said Wednesday.

People who have a “COVID-qualifying circumstance” will not be required seek work. Some of the qualifying circumstances include people who have COVID-19, are under quarantine or who are caring for someone with the disease.

Harrington said he didn’t know for sure how many of the approximately 20,000 people who are receiving up to $831 in state and federal benefits would continue to be exempt and who would be required to resume looking for work, but his “intuition” was it would be more than half of the regular filers.

There are about 10,000 people in Vermont who are self-employed, independent contractors or sole proprietors who will not have to look for work, Harrington said.

Some have argued the $831 maximum benefit prevents people from seeking work because they can make more money collecting unemployment.

Harrington said it is hard to say whether someone “is trying to game the system versus someone who truly is fearful for their health or personal safety by going back to work.”

The most recent statistics show that about 2.9% of the Vermont workforce is unemployed and many Vermont employers say their businesses are hobbled by a shortage of workers.

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NUMBERS

On Wednesday the Vermont Department of Health reported 48 new cases of the virus that causes COVID-19, bringing the statewide total since the pandemic began to almost 22,725.

There were 17 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including seven in intensive care.

The number of fatalities increased by two, to a total of 246.

The Associated Press is using data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering to measure outbreak caseloads and deaths across the United States.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Vermont did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 145.00 new cases per day on April 12 to 80.43 new cases per day on April 26.

The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in Vermont did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 0.57 deaths per day on April 12 to 0.43 deaths per day on April 26.

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