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Begging for Change: Burlington Stabbings Prompt Proposed Penalties

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ROB DONNELLY
  • Rob Donnelly

Sporting a bandanna over a graying ponytail, Arthur Madeiros sat bare-chested on the northwest corner of Church and Main streets on August 16, holding a cardboard sign that read: "Homeless Anything helps."

The 50-year-old Rutland man had arrived in Burlington a week earlier, just hours before a fight among three itinerant men turned violent in City Hall Park. Police said Conner Lucas was intoxicated when he stabbed two fellow homeless men — one in the hand, the other in the neck — on August 9.

Within 24 hours, Madeiros had gotten a knife of his own, for protection. He has no plans to use it, he said, but, "Of course, I'm nervous."

He's not alone.

The stabbing incident was the second in the last five months involving homeless men in downtown Burlington. In March, Louis Fortier allegedly used a knife to kill 43-year-old Richard Medina on the corner of Church and Cherry streets — in broad daylight.

In addition to those violent crimes, Burlington's elected officials have heard reports of increasingly unruly behavior among vagrants. In response, last week City Councilor Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) drafted a resolution to create a criminal penalty for those who repeatedly commit civil "quality of life" offenses such as "public drunkenness, fighting and public urination." At its next meeting, the council will vote on whether to refer his idea to the Ordinance Committee. The end result could be stricter penalties on the books.

"It's important for people to know that if you're coming to downtown Burlington, there are going to be consequences if you're going ... to engage in bad behavior, get drunk, be harassing and threatening to people," Wright said.

Wright's New North End constituents have called him over the years with concerns about homeless encampments and panhandling — but it was the stabbing and resulting media coverage that spurred him to act. Dave Hartnett (D-North District) and Jane Knodell (P-Central District) are cosponsoring the measure.

It "is no silver bullet," Knodell said — but it may be a start. "What we're doing now is not working," she said.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger also welcomed Wright's proposal. "We don't want to be a place that just accepts a significant amount of public drunkenness, public urination and lewd behavior," he said.

The resolution asks Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo to report to the council in September "on options or initiatives the council or administration should consider." No doubt the chief will be prepared; he's been a vocal proponent of cracking down on petty serial offenders since he became Burlington's top cop two years ago. The chief's first priority is making it a criminal act to have an open container of alcohol. Second on the list is public urination.

"Public possession of an open container begets intoxication; intoxication begets fighting," the chief said. The changes would also mitigate "really lascivious and pervasive" sexual harassment on Burlington streets — usually by those who are drunk.

Currently, it's illegal to drink in Burlington's public spaces, except in Oakledge, Leddy and North Beach parks. An open container is a civil violation — meaning, the carrier receives a ticket and $50 fine.

The worst violators accumulate tickets by the dozen, according to del Pozo. Some will tear up a ticket once they receive it or light it on fire in front of the cop who issued it, he said. Unpaid violations affect an individual's credit score — which is little deterrent for those with no income or assets. One man, a transient named Michael Reynolds, has racked up 126 citations and owes the city almost $12,000.

"The lack of consequences is a root cause of what is an unfair burden on the rest of the community," del Pozo said. Criminalization would allow police to bring a repeat offender before a judge and could result in jail time.

The council has tried other methods to keep misbehavior out of downtown Burlington. An ordinance passed in 2013 allows police to issue no-trespass orders that ban offenders from Church Street for one of four offenses: public drinking, drug use, disorderly conduct and unlawful mischief.

A year after the ordinance passed, police had handed out 66 no-trespass orders, and del Pozo said they're still issuing them. But the law doesn't extend to the rest of downtown, so it's pushed the problem to nearby streets, such as Cherry, Bank and Main.

Tom Dalton, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, characterized Wright's resolution as the latest in a long line of policies that criminalize poverty. Those behind it are "working from a place of fear and missing the point about what the real problem is," he said. "This is the failure of the drug and alcohol treatment systems and the housing system."

Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) plans to vote against Wright's measure. "We really need to be careful about making penalties the sole focus of any effort to improve downtown," Tracy said. "Time and again, we've found that penalties are not effective on their own."

"It would help just as much as a speeding ticket — and you know how much they help," said wheelchair-bound Wayne Streeter, parked near the side entrance to city hall. A former North Carolinian, Streeter said he became homeless after his girlfriend died and he broke his leg. He predicted Wright's proposal would be "a waste of time, a waste of cops, a waste of money. It'll only target the homeless community."

People with homes have the option to drink inside, Streeter pointed out. On Church Street, diners legally enjoy booze al fresco.

Burlington's homeless shelters are selective about admitting drunken people. That's one reason some itinerant individuals choose to sleep outside — and why Weinberger supports a year-round "wet" shelter that would accept anyone in need as long as he or she wasn't a threat to others.

Alcohol likely exacerbated the situation on August 9. A group of homeless men were "drinking beers left and right" in City Hall Park as dusk approached, according to one of the victims, Daniel John Keller II, who was back on the street last week. A fight broke out between Mark "Angel" Adams and Lucas after Adams insulted the latter's tattoo, Keller said. Lucas cut Keller's hand, then Adams' throat.

Keller held up his left hand to show the wound across his palm.

Authorities later arrested Lucas, who has a lengthy criminal record, on a charge of aggravated assault with a weapon.

Even before the fracas, though, discontent among downtown business owners had been growing. In June, Mark Mackillop, the owner of Muddy Waters coffee shop, voiced concerns at a city council meeting about the homeless who spend their days on the sidewalk near his Main Street storefront. "This panhandling has turned into more of a form of debauchery," he said at the public forum. He listed the ways: harassment, vulgarity and drunkenness that impacts employees and customers alike.

"While I understand you have concerns around compassion and tolerance, I just wonder what we're defending at this point," said Mackillop.

Hartnett recounted an experience earlier this summer at a business in the same vicinity. He was eating at Junior's Downtown when a homeless man entered and asked to use the restroom. When employees told him it was for paying customers only, he urinated on the floor, Hartnett recalled.

Amir Jusufagic, a managing partner at the Burlington pizzeria, confirmed the incident. Burlington police have since placed metal barriers on the sidewalk there, which del Pozo said keeps people from gathering.

More creative solutions to Burlington's vagrancy problem have been proposed over the years. In 1988, Leunig's Bistro & Café founder Dennis Morrisseau started an initiative he called Westward Ho! — he bought a one-way ticket for any homeless person willing to leave town. The effort earned Morrisseau plenty of criticism — and the attention of the New York Times.

Legend has it only one person took Morrisseau up on his offer. Nonetheless, in the last seven years, the number of homeless people in Chittenden County has dropped from 613 to 291. But the "point-in-time count," which happens every January, doesn't calculate the summer population.

Madeiros said he left Rutland because his girlfriend kicked him out of their apartment. "If I was going to be homeless anywhere in the state of Vermont, it's going to be in Burlington," Madeiros said, noting that the Queen City's services include two free meals a day. The Salvation Army and the day-station operated by the Committee on Temporary Shelter are both reliable sources of food.

He's not worried about open-container tickets. "You think it slows me down from drinking? It doesn't," said Madeiros.

The city "can say, 'Oh yeah, we're going to crack down on the drinking' ... But people are going to be people," Madeiros said. "They're not afraid of the law."

The number of open-container tickets has decreased from 453 in fiscal year 2016 to 235 in fiscal year 2017 — not because fewer people are drinking in public, del Pozo clarified. Rather, the cops "feel like it's a waste of their time," he said.

Meanwhile, the violent crime rate has remained steady in Burlington, according to del Pozo, who noted that simple assault and "street fighting" has increased since last year.

For businesses, it's as much about perceived safety as it is about actual crime, said Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association: "Everyone should feel comfortable downtown."

During a meeting last week about a City Hall Park redesign, Devine added, "I've been harassed at the park more times than I care to mention."

Homeless advocates warn that Wright's resolution will divide Burlingtonians.

"I totally empathize with the business owners who want to have a peaceful and friendly environment. This is what we want for everybody," said Stephen Marshall, a community service worker for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

But alcoholism is rampant in the homeless community, he added. And Marshall should know: He spent time on the streets himself. He said "a compassionate community response," such as treatment or support, would make more sense.


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