Judge hears homeless class action lawsuit

Published: Oct. 25, 2017 at 10:09 AM EDT
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A federal judge Wednesday heard arguments in a class-action lawsuit seeking to prevent the city of Burlington from demolishing a homeless encampment.

Inside a federal courtroom, back and forth arguments over Burlington's homeless camp cleanups shed light on a complicated and challenging ongoing issue.

"It is extremely important for human beings to have shelter, to have protection from the elements" said James Lyall with the Vermont ACLU.

The ACLU said the Queen City is punishing homeless people by forcing them to vacate camps on city property while shelters are full. The organization argued individuals' constitutional rights are being violated through threats of trespassing charges and seizure of their personal property. "What they can't do is chase homeless people around and confiscate things when there's nowhere else for those people to go," Lyall said.

"It's like they're a blight, a plague, that needs to be suppressed," said Stephen Marshall, a homeless advocate. Marshall says he has been in and out of homelessness for much of his adult life. He says under a current policy that prohibits trespassing, the city is essentially criminalizing homelessness. "Just the act of living is illegal. Really?"

The city maintains their shutdowns are targeted. "The city tolerates homeless encampments when there are not problems related to them," said Eileen Blackwood, they city's attorney.

In the case of a North Avenue camp, city workers testified the area is environmentally sensitive -- one of the city's eviction rationales that the ACLU argues is constantly changing. "One day it's public safety, the next it's environmental," Lyall said.

Now a federal judge will decide whether the city can continue to enforce trespassing laws.

"We're very encouraged. We believe that the judge understands the difficulty that the city is in," Blackwood said.

The judge extended a temporary restraining order that stops the city from clearing these camps until a final decision is made. The judge said that will come within the next couple of days.

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