Burlington, ACLU still at odds over homeless camps

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) How to handle homeless camps in Burlington-- the city and American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont are still at odds years after a federal court fight started. Our Cat Viglienzoni has an update.

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Off a section of the bike path in Burlington, you can see a homeless camp. Two years ago, a lawsuit was filed to protect the people who live in those camps. We wanted to know why we still don't have an answer.

Jay Diaz of the ACLU of Vermont said, "Everyone needs to sleep, everyone needs a place to lay their heads at night."

And the ACLU says that's what the people who live in these camps are doing.

The organization has been challenging the city of Burlington over its homeless policy since 2017. That's when Burlington police shut down a homeless camp. The civil liberties union called the removal unconstitutional because city shelters were full and asked the court for an injunction to stop city action.

The city argued in federal court that they only target encampments that are problematic. A federal judge denied the injunction but allowed the lawsuit to move forward. The ACLU says its focus now is on what the city does with the possessions when evictions happen.

"It could be people's only possessions in the world and the city is saying if we find anything, we're going to toss it," Diaz said.

The ACLU maintains the Fourth Amendment protects those belongings. The city can't take property without due process.

The city sees it differently, saying their policy gives people who are being evicted enough time to remove their belongings and they don't have the storage space to keep everything that is left behind.

"The policy tries to balance a couple of really important things," said Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington.

Weinberger also told us the city's policy focuses on homeless camps that are set up in public parks. He said the ones off the beaten path are left alone.

"We generally do not remove encampments unless they are creating public health, public safety problems," Weinberger said.

The mayor also says he wants to see a low-barrier shelter option year-round. This year, there was an extension of the one that's open in the winter but it's closing June 15.

"I think the fact that we have that gap in the service net contributes to and exacerbates this issue," Weinberger said.

He says the homeless camp policy is a draft and a work in progress. The ACLU intends to speak up against the policy when it comes up on Wednesday at a public safety committee meeting.