WCAX Investigates: Burlington’s intractable homeless crisis
BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Burlington is struggling with a cross-section of crises surrounding drugs, mental illness, and homelessness that are impacting the city’s livability. City officials estimate the number of homeless has tripled in the past year and are pleading with state officials for increased assistance.
It’s just a few hours before sunrise on Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace. Most businesses and restaurants are still closed and there are no shoppers. But we found homeless people sleeping in storefronts or on the street, some using drugs.
“I struggle with homelessness, addiction, and health problems,” said Jeanne Morrill, who gathered with friends outside Ken’s Pizza and Pub before 6 a.m. “I stay up five to six days in a row because I wake up robbed or I wake up to someone trying to touch me.”
Morrill says she’s transient, moving to different locations around the city. She can’t find a consistent place to stay and gets kicked out of spots often.
“I’m nervous, I’m scared -- don’t know what to do next,” said Jessa Salisbury, who is among those who pitch her tent in public places.
She says she’s college-educated and lost her housing during the pandemic. Salisbury has also struggled with addiction. She says she is in treatment but still hasn’t found a place to live. And without a home, she says it’s tough to get a job. “Homelessness isn’t black and white, ok. ‘They are homeless -- must be they are drug addicts and thieves and this and that.’ That’s not the terms of it.”
Reporter Ike Bendavid: This is a visible place right here on Battery Street. Why did you put your tent up here?
Jessa Salisbury: I feel safe in the woods... there’s a lot of stuff in the woods. I don’t really wish to talk about it.
We found several encampments scattered in the woods around the city -- There’s one just off Battery Street, another off Manhattan Drive, and near the train tracks by the Intervale. Some were just tents and others with fully built structures set up for off-the-grid living. Most of them are littered with garbage and drug paraphernalia. We found brand new items with security tags removed along with other items that appear to have been stolen.
“Everything you can think of... I’m like the junkyard,” said Patrick Bombard, who says he’s lived in the woods year-round for more than five years. “I would rather be down here. That way I don’t have to deal with anyone up there.”
But the city officials say they are planning to take action against encampments on public property. We watched as two encampments were dismantled and cleaned up -- one at the corner of St. Paul and College Streets, and another on Battery Street.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger says getting rid of the encampments on public property is part of his plan. “I do not think it’s acceptable to have encampments on the sidewalk,” he said. The mayor says the growing homeless population means more encampments are popping up. “We have had a greater need to enforce the city’s sheltering on public lands policies and we are doing that.”
Weinberger says with the homeless problem comes drug use and crime, including violence. He says the city needs help and wants the state to fund more shelters, especially with winter on the way. “We need more beds. We need more housing. This is a crisis,” he said. But the mayor says his request to the state has so far been ignored. And when encampments are cleared out, the people staying there have no long or short-term housing to go to.
“We are just going to move it to a different location where we can store our stuff,” said Misty Leonard, who we found outside the former YMCA on College Street, which has been a spot for squatters in recent months. “We are not trying to block the sidewalk and we don’t want to block the sidewalk, but we kind of have no choice.”
The current state of affairs has local residents and visitors worried about safety and the city’s image. Dylan Worthein says he has had to chase people using drugs away from his porch. “It definitely doesn’t help the quality of life,” Worthein said.
It has also led to some property owners, including the Chittenden County Courthouse, to put up fences to prevent squatters. “I know people are not necessarily coming down to Burlington as often as they used to, especially in the early evening and evening time,” said Chittenden County Assistant Judge Suzanne Brown.
Other residents, like Ian McCloud, say they’ve had enough and are leaving Burlington. “I have a lake view. Who would leave a lake view? ...I’m not going to miss walking out my front door seeing that,” McCloud said.
“In some ways, it’s become more visible,” said Sarah Russell, who works for the city as a special assistant to end homelessness. She acknowledges the rise in need, citing the jump from around 80 self-reported homeless households to 250 this summer. She points to the state’s hotel voucher program winding down earlier this summer.
Russell was there while crews broke down the encampment last week on St. Paul Street and says the city steps in when encampments are in public parks or in the right of way. She says under the city’s camping on public lands policy, they work to help people by storing their stuff for 30 days and directing them to other services. But with limited housing options, she admits most remain on the street and that the solution is more housing. Russel says that Chittenden County has about one-third of the state’s homeless population, with most being in Burlington. She echoes the mayor’s calls for more state resources. “We need to ensure from a state’s standpoint that we are receiving a proportionate amount of funding to respond to the issue historically. That’s not been the case,” she said.
Until then, those on the streets are also looking for answers. “Where are we supposed to go? There is no housing in sight for us,” Jeanne Morrill said.
City officials point to work they have already done including more support services. By the end of 2023 there will be 112 new housing units dedicated to the homeless in Chittenden County. Officials say they are also committed to opening another emergency shelter before winter.
STATE PREPARES FOR CHANGES TO EMERGENCY VOUCHER PROGRAM
With winter approaching, the Scott administration is once again looking to revamp the emergency hotel-motel program that greatly expanded during the pandemic.
With no more federal money available, the state earlier this summer attempted to scale back the voucher program, calling it unsustainable. The Department for Children and Families says they are looking to the Legislature to make substantive changes to the program starting in January. They say not only is it costing an average of $135 a person a night, but it’s also hard to connect people with services and permanent housing.
However, DCF officials say they are preparing to once again offer emergency housing through their adverse weather conditions policy, and are working to address Burlington’s shelter capacity concerns. “We are still actively working with the city to help create a cold weather shelter. We are also hopeful that with the state’s support, the city is able to bring that new shelter capacity online this fall,” said DCf Commissioner Chris Winters.
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