Burlington Council Hotly Debates Removal of Sears Lane Encampment | Off Message

Burlington Council Hotly Debates Removal of Sears Lane Encampment


A sign at the former Sears Lane encampment - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • A sign at the former Sears Lane encampment
The destruction of the Sears Lane homeless encampment wasn't officially on the agenda Monday night, but it prompted contentious debate at a Burlington City Council meeting.

Last Friday morning, bucket loaders and armed police arrived at the South End site and forced out six remaining campers, weeks after the city had ordered it vacated.

Monday night, several people decried the move during the meeting's public forum. Progressive councilors and Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, traded barbs over the city's handling of the encampment's closure altogether.

Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3), who was at the site during the clear-out, said he's ashamed to be part of a governing body "that has failed to take action to protect the most vulnerable members of our community."

Last week's action demonstrated that "we aren't serious about pursuing harm reduction or trauma-informed practice," Magee said.

A bulldozer at work on Friday - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • A bulldozer at work on Friday
Weinberger ordered the camp to close following two arrests there involving drugs and weapons. He initially gave the 40 or so campers just five days to pack up and leave, but extended the deadline, to October 26, after pressure from community activists.

The council's Progressive caucus issued a statement Saturday calling the unannounced clear-out "unconscionable,"and have vowed to introduce a proposal to amend the city's policy on sheltering on public lands at a future meeting.

Monday night, though, Progs took turns blasting Weinberger's administration for last week's enforcement, during which three people were arrested. Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8) said she was disgusted by the action. Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1), who said she's been houseless twice, called for more compassionate policies.
Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) then spoke out against what she called the activists' characterization of the camp as "some kind of utopia," adding that neighbors told her they were regularly confronted and harassed by campers.

Shannon, who lives near the encampment, also recalled that one Sears Lane resident had previously told councilors about suffering permanent nerve damage due to the cold conditions at the camp, which had no electricity or running water.

"She was offered housing. Having housing allows people to start rebuilding their lives," Shannon said. "Housing is the humane response. Allowing the hazards and squalor at Sears Lane to continue is not humane."

Weinberger criticized Progs for painting the administration's response to Sears Lane as inadequate, charging that they "made no alternative proposals" to closing the encampment.

(In fact, the caucus did propose other solutions, including one that would have reopened a search for an organization to manage the site, after an earlier request for proposals didn't attract any offers. The council's two independents and four Democrats blocked the resolution from that night's agenda.)

Weinberger closed his remarks on a positive note, however, saying he was glad councilors are willing to address the underlying causes of chronic homelessness.

"That is what the administration has long been working on and is intensely working on now," Weinberger said. "And I hope the council will join us as these efforts to expand investment in [ending] chronic homelessness so that in the future, our good neighbors do not need to resort to unsafe makeshift sheds and tents. Our neighbors deserve better, and we can deliver it."
Earlier in the meeting, councilors unanimously approved sending a potential charter change to the March 2022 ballot that would repeal language that prohibits prostitution in the city.

The proposal would strike a section of the city's charter that empowers the council "to restrain and suppress houses of ill fame and disorderly houses, and to punish common prostitutes and persons consorting therewith."

If approved on Town Meeting Day, the measure would effectively remove the city's authority to regulate sex work. Notably, it would not decriminalize prostitution, which is considered a misdemeanor under state law.

Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District), who led the repeal effort, introduced the resolution after a mass shooting in March that targeted sex workers in Atlanta. The resolution cited research that found many sex workers experience violence from clients but don't report it because of concerns about law enforcement. Studies also show that decriminalizing sex work could help curb the transmission of HIV.

Monday night's vote was the second that councilors have taken to remove antiquated language from its law books. In October, the body voted to strike a section prohibiting the operation of "a house of prostitution" and to remove gendered language implying that only female-identifying people work in the profession.

Freeman, who uses non-binary pronouns, said they're excited that fellow councilors have shown "unanimous or near unanimous support for this shift in our city's language."

The charter change would still require approval by both the legislature and governor. Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Scott signed into a law a bill that shields people from criminal prosecution if they witness a crime while involved in sex work, or if they're victims of human trafficking.

The vote was lauded by members of the Ishtar Collective, a Vermont organization dedicated to sex workers' rights and welfare, as a move that supports human rights and dignity. Henri Bynx, the collective's co-founder, urged Burlingtonians to pass the ballot item in March.

“We’re asking our neighbors to recognize us as deserving of dignity and bodily autonomy," Bynx said in a press release. "This charter change would be a step in the right direction towards improving the health and safety of individuals who engage in sex work consensually and those who are trafficked into it."

Others spoke against the proposal during the meeting's public forum. One was Elisa Johnson, director of the faith-based New Hampshire Traffick-Free Coalition, who said "there's no way to make the system of prostitution safe for vulnerable people." Burlington resident Michele Morin agreed, saying it's not possible to end trafficking while protecting prostitution.

"If you don't like the ordinance language, then amend it," Morin said. "Don't strike it."

Also Monday, councilors unanimously voted to sign on to a letter that asks legislators to change a method of state education funding.

The letter addresses the state's "weight" system, which counts certain students — such as those who live in poverty or who are learning English — as more than one pupil, to represent that they cost more to educate than other students. The numbers are used to determine the amount of state aid that schools receive.

A 2019 study found that some districts have been "underweighted" — or less financially able to provide for students' needs — for decades.
But instead of assigning higher weights to these districts, a task force of eight legislators has proposed instead giving them "categorical aid" to support English-learners. The letter says treating students differently based on their language and country of origin "is, plain and simple, a discriminatory policy."

"We feel it’s critical that this discrimination is called out so that the Task Force has the opportunity to rectify this wrong before the train leaves the station for good," reads the letter, which has been signed already by Winooski city councilors.

The task force has until December 15 to make its final recommendations.

Weinberger also supported the letter's sentiments, and has testified to the state task force on the issue. In September, he told lawmakers that equitable education funding is long overdue, particularly in Burlington and Winooski, which have the highest percentage of English language-learners in the state.

"Correcting the pupil weighting formula will give our school district the necessary resources to support these students," Weinberger testified. "Supporting these English language learners is essential to allow every student the opportunity to thrive and be successful, contributing members of our communities."