Burlington Braces for More Encampments as Motel Program for Homeless People Winds Down | Housing Crisis | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Braces for More Encampments as Motel Program for Homeless People Winds Down


Published May 24, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

A tent in Burlington - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • A tent in Burlington

In December 2021, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger stood in front of city hall and pledged to end chronic homelessness within three years. The city had long worked to house those without shelter, but an infusion of federal cash during the pandemic would help Burlington pick up the pace, the mayor said.

"[We are] recommitting ourselves to that goal and resourcing this effort properly so that, this time, it does fully succeed," Weinberger said.

Weinberger's grand plans are about to encounter their biggest test. Next Thursday, 730 households will be turned out of Vermont motels when a 3-year-old pandemic-era program to shelter them comes to an end. State lawmakers decided earlier this month to stop funding it. More than a quarter of the soon-to-be-unhoused are already in Chittenden County, and the majority is expected to head for Burlington, where the rental vacancy rate is less than 1 percent and shelters are at capacity.

The city is lobbying the state for funds to open a new shelter but otherwise doesn't have immediate plans to address the influx. The predicament has become a political blame game in which Progressives on the Burlington City Council say Weinberger, a Democrat, hasn't done enough to head off a humanitarian crisis. The mayor and his allies, however, say the city has already taken steps to address homelessness and that there's only so much space and money to direct to the problem, which is not Burlington's to shoulder alone.

With nowhere else to go, people will likely end up pitching tents — a practice that's allowed, for a fee, at just one Burlington campground but has been a means of survival in hidden pockets around the city for years.

Burlington's handling of campsites has been controversial. In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont sued the city on behalf of a homeless man who alleged that officials had trashed his encampment twice when traditional shelters were full. A settlement in 2019 prescribed a new policy that allows the city to remove camps on "public lands," or city-owned properties, if the sites are endangering public health or safety. The agreement says the city must refer campers to social services and give them at least seven days' notice to vacate, though the timeline can be condensed in the case of an emergency.

The city's dismantling of the substantial Sears Lane encampment in late 2021 prompted calls to reform that policy. Weinberger originally gave the camp's 40 occupants just five days to pack up until activists pressured him to extend the deadline by a week.

The specter of another Sears Lane has lingered just under the surface of policy debates as the motel program winds down. But campsites have already popped up around Burlington, including at Battery Park and in wooded stretches of the Intervale. Squatters have repeatedly broken into the vacant, graffiti-covered College Street building that once housed the Greater Burlington YMCA; nearby, tents have been spotted outside the condemned Memorial Auditorium. A small fire broke out at an encampment near the Lake Champlain shoreline earlier this month, sending thick black smoke into the afternoon sky.

One camper had pitched a tent at the entrance to a park in the New North End, with city work trucks parked just feet away. The camper, who gave her name as Lavender, said camping isn't so bad when it's warm out. But she has trouble getting herself to needed services because she doesn't see well.

"I can't even walk down to COTS and take a shower," she said, referring to the Committee on Temporary Shelter, which operates a day station on North Avenue.

Council Progressives have pushed for more permissive camping policies. At the May 15 council meeting, the caucus attempted to pass a resolution asking the mayor to consider allowing encampments in certain areas. City Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3) said tenting isn't a long-term solution but is the short-term reality.

"The more individual sites there are around the city, the harder it is to provide services," he told Seven Days last week. "Sanctioned camping is really a way for us to manage that in the safest way possible and be able to provide resources where folks are all in one or a few spaces."

Magee didn't win over his Democratic colleagues, who have a functional majority on the council. The body instead supported a watered-down version of the resolution that asks city staff to research other, undefined "sheltering options" in lieu of traditional shelters.

Other cities are contending with the issue, too. In Montpelier, which tolerates camping in parts of the city that are not considered "high-sensitivity areas," a Homelessness Task Force has prepared a "motel exodus" plan. It calls for providing people sanitation services, cellphone charging stations and parking spots where they can safely sleep in vehicles. In Brattleboro, preparations to distribute tents and camping gear are under way and town leaders are forming an emergency response team that will meet weekly "for the foreseeable future," according to a recent memo from the town manager.

A sign at the former Sears Lane encampment - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • A sign at the former Sears Lane encampment

Burlington officials are part of a countywide effort to address the problem. Weinberger defended his record in an interview with Seven Days, saying the city has "done an enormous amount" to combat chronic homelessness even before he announced plans to end it 18 months ago. In late 2020, the city helped open the state's first year-round low-barrier shelter at the former Champlain Inn; earlier this year, 35 homeless people moved into a "shelter pod" community on Elmwood Avenue, funded with federal coronavirus relief money. The city has also formed an urban park ranger team, hired several social workers and created a new "special assistant to end homelessness" position. The latter staffer, Sarah Russell, cochairs the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, which oversees a program that assigns caseworkers to homeless folks to help them find permanent housing.

Those efforts, Weinberger said, "give us a much greater ability to weather the current moment than we would if we had not been working so hard on this for so long."

The efforts have been complicated and at times difficult. The city struggled to find a partner to manage the pod village, a factor in a monthslong delay before the place could open in February. Michael Monte, the CEO of Champlain Housing Trust, which eventually agreed to run it, said eight residents have been evicted for threatening or assaulting people, not consistently using their shelter, or a combination of these issues. At least 100 people remain on a waiting list.

Like many advocates, Monte believes the real solution is permanent housing. His organization has 84 units for formerly homeless people in the pipeline — 26 of which are currently under construction — but the balance won't be complete until 2025.

Monte says in the near term, officials will have to consider expanding options for people who aren't sober, particularly since the organization that runs the existing one is stepping down. Earlier this month, ANEW Place announced it would stop managing the former Champlain Inn this fall due to staff burnout. When ANEW Place started running the shelter in 2019 — back when it was only open seasonally — it was the fourth organization in five years to give it a try. No successor has yet come forward.

In recent weeks, the city has appealed for some of the $10 million that lawmakers included in the state budget to expand shelter capacity. Weinberger said he's willing to open a new shelter within city limits if the state will pony up.

City Councilor Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4), who spent nearly four decades working for affordable housing nonprofits in Vermont, said the state and other towns need to open shelters or pay for supports to ease the transition from motels. Otherwise, she said, Burlington will inevitably see an increase in camping.

The mayor's office said the city won't actively search for encampments this summer simply to dismantle them. But it will enforce the camping policy. That includes clearing sites if "serious concerns" develop, even if there's nowhere else for people to go, Weinberger's spokesperson, Samantha Sheehan, said in an email.

Carpenter agrees with the city policy, but she also knows it won't solve the bigger issue.

"It's sort of like — I hate to say it — Whac-a-Mole," she said. "We try to move people ... but then you've just moved the problem somewhere else."

The original print version of this article was headlined "No Vacancy | Burlington braces for more encampments as motel program for homeless people winds down"