Officials in Burlington are scratching their heads over what to do about a small group of homeless people who’ve apparently made themselves right at home within the city’s downtown business district.
During a city council work session last Monday, staff members from various city departments insisted that there’s little the city can do to dislodge these individuals in spite of the persistent complaints they’ve attracted from downtown merchants and the residents who visit the area.
The staff nevertheless assured the council that the challenges raised by the district’s “unsheltered” denizens are quite minor compared to bigger problem posed by homelessness writ large – a dilemma that the city’s elected leaders have also expressed a desire to tackle over the long run.
Morgan Lasater, the city’s community engagement manager, touched on both the immediate and the larger concerns about homelessness when she briefed the council on the staff’s efforts ahead of last Monday’s discussion.
“We have installed some lighting, and the Burlington police department has installed some security cameras in that area. We’ve also gone through and thinned out our shrubbery and cut the power to some of the outlets out there, which we recognized were maybe a draw for folks.”
– Morgan Lasater, Burlington community engagement manager
In regard to the former, Lasater attributed the problems in the downtown area to a core group of five to seven people, who she said have become well known to the business district’s property owners and patrons. She added that these individuals tend to congregate near Burlington’s historic train depot, which has prompted the city to make some changes to prevent this facility from turning into a camp site.
“We have installed some lighting, and the Burlington police department has installed some security cameras in that area,” the city’s community engagement manager recalled. “We’ve also gone through and thinned out our shrubbery and cut the power to some of the outlets out there, which we recognized were maybe a draw for folks.”
Laster added that she and her colleagues have also held a “myth busters” session in order to educate downtown merchants and others about the realities of regulating the homeless.
Brian Long, the city’s police chief, told the council that he has worked directly with downtown business owners to address homelessness since 2017 or 2018, when he was still a police captain.
Long said that, over the years, he has seen the department respond to the issue through routine police patrols as well as individual calls for service. He noted that the agency has also kept a close watch on the district’s crime rates, which he said have shown the downtown area to have few of the more violent offenses that are tracked by the federal government.
“The downtown represents just 1 percent of the city’s total Part I crimes,” Long added in reference to a category that includes rape, murder, burglary, and aggravated assault. “I think that demonstrates that, overall, we have a very safe downtown area.”
“The downtown represents just 1 percent of the city’s total [most serious crimes, which include rape, murder, burglary, and aggravated assault]. I think that demonstrates that, overall, we have a very safe downtown area. . .
“We’re always going to respond to crimes in progress. But it is not unlawful to stand on the sidewalk . . . Just mere presence, even for long, extended periods of time, becomes complicated for police to enforce. . . So, we’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of the situation as it relates to people who enjoy spending time in our downtown area.”
– Burlington police chief Brian Long
Long added that so-called nuisance offenses comprise most of the charges filed against the district’s homeless population. He recalled that one individual was brought up on seven of these low-level misdemeanors in 2021 alone. Long nevertheless admitted that there’s only so much the police department can do when people are merely loitering on public property without committing any demonstrably criminal acts.
“We’re always going to respond to crimes in progress,” he added. “But it is not unlawful to stand on the sidewalk…Just mere presence, even for long, extended periods of time, becomes complicated for police to enforce…So, we’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of the situation as it relates to people who enjoy spending time in our downtown area.”
Long’s admission to the council drew a measure of disappointment from councilman Ronnie Wall, who was chiefly responsible for getting the issue of homelessness added to the council’s work session agenda.
“Wow, that’s depressing,” the councilman declared. “You’re telling me that we’ve been talking about this since 2017 or 2018 and we’re still getting complaints?!”
The intractable nature of the problem was also confirmed by Jai Baker of Allied Churches, which operates a homeless shelter and food pantry along Fisher Street – not far from the downtown business district.
“There’s 10 percent of the [homeless] population that does not want to be housed, and the individuals that we’re referring to would fall into this 10 percent.”
– Jai Baker, Allied Churches
Baker told the council that there’s a certain proportion of the homeless population that even the most diligent efforts are unable to reach.
“There’s 10 percent of the [homeless] population that does not want to be housed,” Baker told the council during the work session, “and the individuals that we’re referring to would fall into this 10 percent.”
Baker added, however, that the other 90 percent of the homeless population could benefit from the promotion of safe, affordable housing in Burlington. He went on to encourage the city to team up with the private sector to foster a more collaborative approach to affordable housing.
Baker’s point was echoed by Peter Bishop, the city’s economic developer, who stressed the value of a “regional” strategy to address the multifaceted character of homelessness.
The intricacy of the broader dilemma seemed to have a visceral impact on Burlington’s mayor pro tem Harold Owen.
“This is a heck of a problem,” Owen told the rest of the council. “It’s not something that we’re going to buy our way out of. It’s much more complex.”
The council nevertheless agreed to hold more conversations about homelessness and the intersecting issue of affordable housing. Its members also some expressed interest in an ad hoc committee or roundtable that would allow city officials to bounce ideas off of nonprofit representatives and other interested parties.
In the end, Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler insisted that the city should forge ahead with both the larger issues as well as the more immediate problems that face the downtown business district.
“It’s the sheer safety aspect,” he added, “of someone feeling comfortable walking from the parking lot to a downtown restaurant or to their office building.”