A motel in limbo: the view from Fife & Drum
Editor’s Note: Addie Lentzner is an elder at Arlington Memorial High School and also a student activist, advocating for the homeless in Vermont and leading the Student Committee Against Racism. For this story, she worked as a student journalist, using reports from the field to raise awareness.
The Underground Workshop publishes student journalism from high school and college students across Vermont. There are many ways to contribute: Students or teachers interested in participating should check out our current menu of opportunities. For more information, please email Workshop Editor-in-Chief, Ben Heintz, at [emailÂ protected]
by Addie Lentzner, Arlington Memorial High School
The Fife and Drum Motel sits atop a small hill on the freeway between downtown Bennington and Pownal. This October afternoon was dark and rainy, but the hallway was busy nonetheless, with residents arriving from shopping and sitting outside. Pammy Mears, the motel’s assistant manager and housekeeper, rushed down the hall, stopping to check in with customers and answer her phone.
Fife and Drum has become home to a whole range of people, from young children to an artist who once worked with Frank Sinatra. âWe’re a family,â Pammy said.
Pammy was once homeless herself. She does not take for granted a roof, a bed, a shower. Over a decade ago, Pammy experienced homelessness with her husband, Tom, and their son, who was in second grade at the time. They lived in the North Bennington shelter and then lived in their van for a while.
Eventually the family moved to the Southgate Motel in Bennington and then to Fife and Drum. That’s when fate struck: the owners of Fife and Drum asked Tom to work for them, and that’s how Pammy ended up working at the motel.
When Pammy was homeless, she paid for their motel room out of pocket. Today, the General Assistance Motel Program allows the state to pay for rooms for people in need. As of March 2020, the state has paid for motel rooms for approximately 2,000 people in 75 different motels.
Pammy wants the publicly paid program to exist when she experienced homelessness.
âThis program is amazing,â she said, âhow much it has helped peopleâ.
Pammy has worked at Fife and Drum for 8 years. She took on a role of social worker during the pandemic, transferring her lived experience with her into her work. She helps with food stamps, paperwork and everyday essentials. Last year, the motel even hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for all residents.
Why is she going that extra mile? According to Pammy, “everyone is human, everyone deserves a chance, everyone deserves help.”
In July, at least 700 Vermonters lost their eligibility and were kicked out of motels, many of whom are now rough sleeping. The next release cycle was set for September 23, but the program was extended first until October 21, and finally until December 31. The extension only applied to those who were due to leave on September 23; those released in July received no extensions. The fate of the program and the people who participate in it remains uncertain.
Donald and Rhonda are two guests at Fife. Sitting in chairs outside their room, they said they had no choice but the GA program. After hurricanes and power outages, they said, their landlord left the couple without electricity or needed repairs to the home for months. The owner left them with no smoke detectors in their house and no wires throughout their trailer. They eventually had to call a home inspector; living there had become unbearable. They moved on to the GA Motel program.
Donald and Rhonda are just two of the thousands of customers in the state. Every situation is different and the problem is viewed in different ways. Pammy said that just because motels house homeless people, people often associate them with crime.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said his department was receiving calls to local motels. He wrote in an email that “the money should be used to help people with drug addiction or other types of mental health issues” to reduce crime and police calls.
According to Pammy, however, Fife and Drum has not had to deal with any crime or other related issues: “We have a fairly calm group here.”
Bonnie, sitting on the bench outside her motel room, noted the closeness and tranquility of the group at Fife and Drum. Residents call her the motel’s âgrammyâ while Pammy is the âmomâ.
Bonnie said she had a doctorate. in cognitive therapy and was once an artist who worked with Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. âI drove Mercedes and had grandiose homes. I got it all, she said. âAnd I lost everything.
Bonnie spent time at the Albany Hospital, then moved on to the GA program. In typical artist style, she explained how hospital staff introduced her to the Emergency Services Motel program, exclaiming with jazz hands and a “da da da!”
Bonnie doesn’t know many people locally. Pammy, she said, is the only person she can relate to. Pammy walked over and sat on the bench next to Bonnie, shaking her hand like a close friend or sister. Bonnie spoke to her through tears: “When you stop and talk to me, it gets better.”
According to Pammy, some of her guests were lucky enough to find accommodation. She pointed out that clients used the motel program as a stable space to work with housing agencies. However, the lack of available housing compounds the problem even though people can afford a house. Pammy said a family was told by authorities to find accommodation in Hoosick Falls, NY, while all of their support, doctors and their child’s school were in Bennington. Without local housing, people find themselves without many options.
Chloe Viner Collins is the director of the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless. She worked at the Holiday Inn in Burlington and was part of the Motel Program People’s July 1 outing.
Viner Collins described a hectic June as he tried to transfer people to other shelters or motels. As July approached, she helped store a room full of tents and suitcases to hand over to enthusiastic guests. âIt was one of the worst things I ever had to do,â she said, adding that âit was like killing peopleâ.
Viner Collins now runs the BCCH shelter in Bennington, where all 16 of the 16 adult shelter beds are full. She said she will have to start turning people down just when the weather turns cold. She added that there are no plans to build affordable housing or convert motels in Bennington: unless the governor completely reinstates the program, for the dozen on the streets and the hundreds in the motels, there are no plans to there are no next steps, let alone a motel room.
It’s not just a Democratic question or a Republican question. Bennington Rep. Mary Morrissey is a Republican who supports the Motel program. She is actively engaged in finding solutions to the housing crisis in Bennington County.
âFor me, homelessness is a humanitarian issue,â Morrissey said. “It should never be a political issue and certainly not because you might be a Democrat or a Republican.”
Pammy thinks the governor should reinstate the motel program. “It’s really cold outside,” she said, “and no one should have to be outside in the cold.”
When asked if the Governor should reinstate the program, Bonnie slowly and methodically removed her glasses and replied: Only a “cold individual” would choose not to reinstate it completely.
Afternoon turned to evening, the rain poured down outside Fife and Drum, and guests began to walk to their rooms. As she got up to return to the reception, Pammy pointed out, “We are all happy here, we are all family.”