I-89 cloverleaf homeless camp taken down

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Vermont authorities dismantled a homeless encampment earlier this summer near Exit 14 in South Burlington. The eviction has again raised questions about what to do with the region's homeless population.

"Everyone has free will. If they choose to be outside, that is their free will," said Dragon, who lives in an encampment on the outskirts of Burlington. "It's cheaper. Because all of the rent out here is over $900 dollars a month."

Dragon says if affordable, permanent housing isn't an option, camping outside is at least better than the alternative -- staying at a shelter that enforces strict guidelines. "COTS and all these other places -- they want to put you underneath their thumb and then grind you down into their mold," Dragon said.

The densely-wooded camp at issue was used by up to five individuals and was located in the I-89 cloverleaf. Before it was was taken down in July it had been used at least a couple of years. Vermont State Police say they worked with VTrans officials and cleaned up mountains of debris.

So if someone chooses to sleep in tents outdoors, where are they allowed to go? Vermont law states it is illegal to walk on or inhabit any part of an interstate, so camping in the I-89 cloverleaf like the one at Exit 14 isn't permitted. It's also technically illegal to camp within Burlington city limits but tents keep popping up.

"Who is government to come in and say that if you're going to camp, it needs to look like this? Equally as important though is ensuring as a government that there's shared and respectful use of public space," said South Burlington Police Chief Shawn Burke. "I don't think the police have the sole answer and I think it's really, really complicated."

Chief Burke has served in his current position for about a year, but he worked for the Burlington Police department for more than two decades. During that time he worked closely with the city's transient community. He says circumstances like the one at Exit 14 are more clear cut -- it's simply unsafe to live on the interstate. But he says when it comes to camping in other public spaces the solution isn't quite as black and white."They just want to find a place where they can live on their own, maybe live with a small community, but outside of what we consider normal residency, and I think that's a good question for citizens and government to kind of weigh out how we facilitate that," he said.

And the homeless say the solution is simple. "You're safe, no one can see you. Let them be," said Dragon.

The city of Burlington and ACLU are still at odds over homeless camp policies. The ACLU filed a lawsuit that was intended to protect the people who live in these camps but it's still pending two years later.
ACLU officials say a lack of affordable housing is at the core of homelessness in Vermont's urban areas and the real solution comes down to addressing that issue.