Vermont Business Magazine Mayor Weinberger on Monday announced next steps toward ending the unsafe living conditions at the Sears Lane encampment, and expanding short- and mid-term housing services in Burlington during this period of acute housing shortage.
Dangerous incidents at the site have included police and federal law enforcement partners executing a warrant following a month-long narcotics investigation and a camper pointing an assault-style airsoft gun (a replica pellet gun) at Burlington Fire personnel who were responding to a medical call. The Fire Department has also determined that some of the structures that have been erected illegally on the site pose a significant fire risk to occupants and other campers on the site.
Following those incidents, Mayor Weinberger directed Burlington Police to issue a notice to leave and remove possessions by October 19 in accordance with the City of Burlington’s policy regarding sheltering on public lands. The City’s policy regarding sheltering on public lands was created in later 2019, following a long period of engagement with local advocates and the ACLU.
“I believe that homelessness in Burlington should be brief, and rare and my Administration has worked hard for many years to expand resources and services for the individuals living in chronic homelessness. For the past year these efforts have included an attempt to establish first a tiny home community and then a managed campsite at Sears Lane,” said Mayor Miro Weinberger. “Unfortunately these efforts have not been supported by key partners and now, the encampment has become an immediate concern where significant harm has occurred and is likely to occur if the site continues. To protect the health and safety of the campers, neighbors, and our first responders we must close this encampment. However, we will not stop fighting to bring needed support and resources to members of our community who are housing insecure.”
After work through the weekend and further engagement with campers at Sears Lane, the Vermont Department of Children and Families, and various local social service providers the City is announcing a number of updates:
· Since Thursday, many campers at the site have been working with the City in good faith to leave the encampment and some have requested an extension for leaving the site beyond October 19.
· The City will store the belongings of campers for up to 30 days by bringing storage containers to the site. These containers will be on-site no later than October 25.
· In response to these requests and the updated support plan, the Mayor has extended the deadline for campers to comply with this notice until October 26.
· At the City’s request, the Vermont Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) has pledged emergency funding to provide direct assistance to Sears Lane residents in their transition to other housing. DCF is committed to working with the City, local nonprofits and the Chittenden Homeless Alliance to ensure that people who have been living at Sears lane are supported in accessing a range of alternative housing options to meet their needs.
· DCF has confirmed that the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) will provide direct street outreach services to the Sears Lane encampment. CVOEO is offering campers hotel assistance, transportation, and other housing assistance. CVOEO and the City's recently expanded Community Service Liaison team will work with Sears Lane clients to ensure a safe transition.
· On Thursday, October 21, City staff and community partners will meet with campers to discuss resource connection, explain the City’s storage policy, and identify trash and abandoned items for removal.
· On Friday, October 22, the Department of Public Works and Department of Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront will be on site to assist with the disposal and removal of items identified as abandoned or trash only.
The City and key partners have dramatically expanded homeless services on Mayor Weinberger’s watch, with key initiatives including:
· Opening the City’s first low-barrier winter warming shelter in 2014, and the continuation of this program until 2020 when it was expanded to be a year-round facility.
· The launch of the region’s first “coordinated entry system” to better support individuals experiencing homelessness.
· The conversion of North Beach into a low-barrier, COVID-safe facility first with RVs and then with tents through the spring and summer of 2020.
While last week’s issues created an immediate concern for the City and for the safety and health of individuals in the area, the site has had a number of growing concerns that the City has sought to resolve through expanded management at the site. Prior to the most recent incidents of criminal activity, the City team had also been working to protect public health and safety and to find a way for the City-owned land and Sears Lane to help address community housing needs. These efforts included:
· In October 2020, the City partnered with ANEW Place to secure grant funding from the Vermont Housing Conservation Board to build tiny homes at Sears Lane. The VHCB voted 5-3 against funding the City’s plan.
· In September 2021, after months of consultations with non-profit service providers, the City released a request for proposals seeking a non-profit partner to actively manage the site as a low-barrier campground. No local service providers responded to that request.
At the Mayor’s direction, the City of Burlington’s Community Economic Development (CEDO) is continuing to explore ways in which City properties can play a role in addressing the current, acute housing crisis.
Source: 10.18.2021. Burlington, VT –Office of Mayor Miro Weinberger