The City of Burlington may proceed with disbanding the Sears Lane homeless encampment, a Vermont Superior Court judge ruled on Tuesday.
The decision comes days after camp residents Grey Barreda and Alexys Grundy appeared in civil court to ask the judge to stop the forced move-out. The residents had argued that the city's order violated its policy on camp removal, which was adopted in 2019 as part of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont .
Judge Samuel Hoar wrote that unlike an ordinance, the city’s policy does not have the force of law.
“On its face, the document is more aspirational than binding,” Hoar wrote, adding that despite the policy being part of a court-approved settlement, “there is no evidence that it was ever incorporated into any consent decree or other court order.”
The ruling is a blow to the nearly 40 residents who were displaced by the city's notice to vacate on October 14. Mayor Miro Weinberger issued the order after two men were arrested there. He initially gave residents just five days to move out. But after pushback from Progressives on the City Council and community activists, Weinberger, a Democrat, extended the deadline.
The city has taken steps to relocate Sears Lane residents, but advocates have criticized officials for failing to find permanent housing solutions for them. As of Friday, two dozen people had moved to hotels for up to 30 days, while others accepted tickets out of town to see friends or family in another state, according to city officials. Some residents went camping elsewhere or declined assistance.
In court last week, Barreda and Grundy testified that the city had allowed the camp to exist on public property for years and that in recent weeks, officials had sought to find a partner to manage the site. No one responded to a recent request for proposals, though activists have said the two-week window was not enough time to garner a response.
Hoar’s ruling says that campers aren’t provided the same legal protections as typical renters because the city never agreed to their tenancy. Barreda and Grundy “candidly admitted” that they didn’t communicate with city officials about living there before moving in, Hoar wrote.
“The evidence establishes at best that they and their neighbors occupied the encampment at the sufferance of the city, without agreement or permission, express or implied,” the ruling says. “These facts make clear that the City undertook no contractual obligations.”
In an interview with Seven Days on Tuesday evening, Barreda said the judge's ruling was "expected but shocking."
"This is what the system has been telling everyone in the encampment for many years, in many ways ... that we're nobody," Barreda said, "that despite the fact that we physically represent a portion of the population, our lives don't matter."
ACLU of Vermont general counsel Jay Diaz said in a statement that "we are disappointed in the court’s take on our settlement and are reviewing our options.”
“All Burlington residents should be treated with respect and compassion, no matter who they are or what their living circumstances might be, and both the city and the state need to adequately fund and implement services that address housing insecurity, poverty, mental health concerns, and substance use disorders,” Diaz wrote. “Rather than punishing, criminalizing, and violating the rights of those who can least afford it, Vermonters want their leaders to invest in community-based solutions to these persistent, complex, and systemic challenges.”
In a statement Tuesday evening, Weinberger credited the city team and its partners who "successfully delivered emergency resources to over 30 community members experiencing homelessness and moved them into safer and better housing. "I appreciate the Court's repeated decisions to allow the City to carry out this important work, and for bringing resolution to the open questions with its strong ruling today," the mayor said.
Earlier Tuesday, homeless advocates called on Gov. Phil Scott to meet with residents of Sears Lane. The group of advocates, including former gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel, has been camping on the Statehouse steps for 20 days to demand that Scott expand eligibility for the state’s motel voucher program, which has housed homeless Vermonters during the pandemic.
Scott agreed to extend the program through the end of the year, but many people, including those at Sears Lane, don’t qualify under the state guidelines. The group’s statement noted that since their protest began, officials have broken up Sears Lane and another encampment in Hartford, Vt.
“What we are seeing is exactly how we are willing to treat folks in poverty in broad daylight,” read the statement, which Barreda cosigned. “Today we come together to plead for the Governor and leaders to finally treat folks experiencing homelessness with the humanity that they deserve.”
Siegel said her group will host a press conference on Thursday in response to the judge's ruling.