The City of Burlington will pay $25,000 to settle a lawsuit that alleged the city trashed a homeless man’s belongings without adequate notice.
The November 26 settlement with Brian Croteau Sr. also prescribes a new homeless encampment policy, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, which represented Croteau along with cooperating counsel Jared Carter and Gary Sarachan.
“With this settlement, some of Burlington’s most marginalized residents are protected from having their personal property seized and destroyed without due process,” ACLU of Vermont staff attorney Lia Ernst said in a press release. “The ACLU remains committed to ending the criminalization of poverty and homelessness in Vermont, and this agreement is a positive step toward that goal.”
The ACLU of Vermont filed suit in October 2017 after learning that the city had evicted residents from their campsites when all official shelters were full. Croteau Sr. alleged that the city trashed his belongings twice.
The city delayed rewriting its encampment cleanup policy while the lawsuit was in play. The policy, which has lived in various draft forms, was last updated in October 2018. Mayor Miro Weinberger told Seven Days earlier this year that the previous policy achieved a fair balance of everyone’s right to use public land, but the ACLU of Vermont contended it was unconstitutional and created fear among unsheltered people.
In an email to Seven Days, City Attorney Eileen Blackwood wrote that the city never punished people “for sleeping in public when they have nowhere else to go.” She also noted that during the course of litigation, the court determined the city had provided “proper due process” before removing people's belongings.
Blackwood agrees, however, that the new policy both protects public spaces and treats unsheltered residents compassionately. The policy now requires the city to provide campers with a written notice to vacate, which must outline the reasons why the shelter would be removed. Previous drafts only required the city to “attempt to make outreach” with the residents.
The policy also spells out a process for campers to object to eviction and requires the city to store abandoned items for at least 30 days.
The settlement directs Blackwood to obtain city council approval for the new policy, but it goes into effect in the meantime. The council's Public Safety Committee will get first crack at a review, Blackwood said.
The lawsuit is the third that the city and ACLU of Vermont have settled over the last two years, all of which involved low-income residents. In July, the city agreed to rewrite its trespass ordinance and pay a $13,500 sum to resolve a case filed by Jason Ploof, who was twice trespassed from City Hall Park. In late 2017, the city settled a wrongful eviction lawsuit filed by Joseph Montagno, who was kicked out of his Church Street dwelling for frequently calling the police. He received a $30,000 payment.
“All of these cases together represented the city’s commitment to make good on its promise to treat all Burlingtonians with dignity and respect and fundamental fairness,” Ernst said. “That’s what all these cases are about.”