Burlington Officials Outline Plan for Water, Portable Toilets at Encampments | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Burlington Officials Outline Plan for Water, Portable Toilets at Encampments


Published June 11, 2024 at 1:31 a.m.

Sarah Russell, the city's special assistant to end homelessness - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Sarah Russell, the city's special assistant to end homelessness
Burlington city officials are distributing water, dumpsters and portable toilets to three homeless encampments as part of Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak’s plan to provide basic necessities to the city’s growing unhoused population.

Under the temporary plan, supplies will be brought to two camps near the waterfront and another near the Intervale in the Old North End, the mayor told city councilors at Monday night's meeting. Mulvaney-Stanak called it a "flexible" seasonal policy and did not specify how long the city support would continue. She did say the city will continue removing tents from city parks and public rights-of-way.

The city has long contended with encampments, but more have popped up in visible places this spring, prompting debate about how the city should regulate them. On Monday night, many councilors appeared to be on board with Mulvaney-Stanak's plan, at least cautiously. But they also had plenty of questions about how tolerant the city should be of camping where it's technically prohibited.

"People in Burlington are really feeling frustrated about the encampments throughout the city," Councilor Becca Brown McKnight (D-Ward 6) said. "That's something I'd like to see reflected more in all of our plans."
The city’s handling of homeless encampments has long been controversial. In 2017, a homeless man sued the city for allegedly trashing his campsite twice when other shelters were full. A settlement in 2019 created a policy that allows officials to remove encampments on city property if they’re a health or safety risk. Campers are given at least seven days to relocate, but the timeline can be condensed if officials determine that the encampment’s conditions constitute an emergency.

Under the policy, camping is only allowed at the city's lone sanctioned campground at North Beach, but illegal tenting has happened for years, mostly in places outside public view. The city’s dismantling of the expansive Sears Lane encampment in 2021 prompted calls to reform the policy, including the possibility of creating a sanctioned campsite, but the effort languished.

Officials don't always immediately tear down highly visible encampments, either. Over the winter, former mayor Miro Weinberger's administration didn't clear out a row of tents along Battery Street until the city-sponsored winter warming shelter had opened downtown.

Meantime, Burlington’s unsheltered homeless population has ballooned to nearly 300, up from about 50 just a year ago. That number will likely spike this fall, when the state’s motel housing program winds down. This winter, fewer people will qualify for the state’s cold-weather program, putting even more pressure on the city’s strained shelter system.

There are only 223 shelter beds available in all of Chittenden County, and some are only open in the winter months. Others have high barriers to entry or are for families or youths.

Mulvaney-Stanak's plan will allocate $50,000 of the upcoming fiscal year's budget to outfit the campsites with supplies. She’ll also lobby the state for funds to open additional shelters in Chittenden County. And she intends to keep the Elmwood Avenue "shelter pod" community open for another year.
Mulvaney-Stanak said on Monday that she's following the same encampment policy as her predecessor. City officials continue to remove encampments from parks and rights-of-way, including a tent someone was living in on a greenbelt along Maple Street. Officials are also being flexible with camping on other city land, just as Weinberger had been with encampments that have existed in the Intervale for years.

"We have not said we're not removing camps," said Sarah Russell, the city's special assistant to end homelessness. "I think what we've said really clearly is that we're exercising tolerance."

The explanation didn't sit well with Brown McKnight.

"Tolerance for what? Tolerance for how long?" she asked. "We need more clarity and specificity around what people can expect."
Councilor Gene Bergman (P-Ward 2) said Mulvaney-Stanak's plan will provide unhoused people with dignity but will also cause strife in the Old North End neighborhood where the toilets will be installed. Bergman, who lives near the site, said residents already complain about the "noise and fighting" from the encampment.

"There needs to be real community engagement," Bergman said. "This is a conversation that we need to have ... because I'm going to get the calls."

Other councilors zeroed in on public safety concerns at the encampments. Earlier on Monday, Burlington fire crews had responded to a blaze at a tent site near the city line with Winooski, under a railroad bridge. EMTs transported a man to the hospital to treat burns on his legs.

Russell said she's already spoken with Fire Chief Mike LaChance, who proposed outfitting a pickup truck with a water tank in lieu of sending a larger fire engine to encampments.

"Staff are being really creative," she said. "This is truly a bit of a pilot. I feel very confident this is the right thing to do and that we will yield positive results."
Also on Monday, councilors learned that the city’s budget gap grew by another $1.1 million due to an accounting error.

Just before Monday’s meeting, city staff realized that in calculating the grand list — which determines residents’ municipal property taxes — they accidentally added the value of the city’s tax-increment financing districts when it should have been omitted.

The mistake is the second budgeting error that the city has revealed in recent weeks. In late April, Mulvaney-Stanak announced that the city’s expected $9 million shortfall had grown to $13.1 million after staff forgot to add in the increased costs for city employee benefits.

To close the original budget gap, Mulvaney-Stanak is proposing to use the remainder of the city’s federal coronavirus relief funds, increase fees for various programs and leave nearly two-dozen staff positions vacant, among other steps.

Making up the additional $1.1 million will require cuts and bringing in more revenue. About half of the total will come from collecting gross receipts taxes from businesses that were delinquent or only recently paid their balance.

Despite the budget constraints, Mulvaney-Stanak is still proposing investments in community safety, including $150,000 for additional security and a social worker at Fletcher Free Library, where aggressive behavior and drug use have become more commonplace. Her proposal also budgets for hiring several more police officers.

Councilors are expected to vote on the fiscal year 2025 budget proposal at their next meeting on June 24.

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