South Burlington weighs new policy for homeless encampments

South Burlington City Hall and Public Library, shown July 23, 2021. File photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

South Burlington officials are considering a policy that would prevent the removal of unauthorized campsites from public lands, unless social services providers have identified alternative local housing options for the people living there.

The proposed policy , which the South Burlington City Council discussed at its meeting Nov. 21, also lays out a process for removing a campsite the city deems unsafe, including notifying its residents and temporarily storing their belongings. City officials said the policy is modeled after one adopted in Portland, Maine, and mirrors policies on public homeless encampments in Burlington and Montpeiler.

Jessie Baker, the South Burlington city manager, said the policy would help ensure that even if shelter through local and state programs isn’t available for people who are experiencing homelessness, the city won’t “push them off to another municipality.”

“We want to be sure that our residents who are unhoused still feel welcome and safe in our community,” Baker said, characterizing the policy as a “roadmap” for city staff.

As winter quickly approaches, providers have said that there appear to be precious few rooms open to low-income Vermonters through the state program that houses people in hotels and motels. A capacity list released last month by the state Department for Children and Families indicated that there would be 10 or fewer emergency housing rooms available in Chittenden County, and even fewer transitional housing rooms, by the end of November.

Shawn Burke, chief of the South Burlington Police Department, said he has observed more people camping outdoors in the city recently and believes it is a result of a lack of capacity in the state’s general assistance housing program.

The encampment policy states that when local shelters are at capacity, the city “shall take a general non-involvement approach to any found unauthorized campsites,” with a goal of “not criminalizing” people who have created shelter due to a lack of housing.

But when shelter space is available — which Baker said is typically the case — or when campsites become “obstructions,” present “immediate hazards” or are found in certain areas of the city, the unauthorized campsites will be removed, the policy states.

“We have an ordinance already on the books that prohibits camping in our parks and on city-owned land,” said Colin McNeil, the city’s attorney, at the Nov. 21 meeting. “The difficulty with that is, it really doesn't set out the procedure of how we're supposed to enforce it.”

The new policy defines an “obstruction” as a person, tent or other personal property that’s part of a campsite and interferes with public rights of way. “Immediate hazards,” it says, are campsites in which the people living there risk serious injury or death beyond being exposed to the elements, or pose a risk to others, such as by being located in an area where vehicles can drive.

In these cases, city staff may immediately remove a campsite — or an object causing an obstruction — from its location without prior notice. If someone is present at the campsite, city staff may instead just ask them to move an object out of the way.

The policy also would allow the city to designate locations “where homeless campsites have become a repeated or consistent problem” as so-called “emphasis areas.” Campsites located there could be considered “obstructions” and removed. Baker said the city hasn’t yet designated those areas, which would be marked with signs.

For campsites that are not “obstructions” or “immediate hazards,” though, the policy states that city staff should post notices “prominently” around the site stating that it will be removed at least 24 hours before any action is taken. The notice should include contact information for emergency shelter resources, the policy says, as well as information about where the person’s property will be stored and how to get it back.

The policy also calls for the city to store “all personal property” found while removing a campsite unless that property is hazardous. The city would keep personal property for a week and wouldn’t require identification, such as a driver’s license, to pick it up.

Several people who spoke at the Nov. 21 council meeting said they supported the policy  but wanted to see the timeline for storing property increased to 30 days, which would match what’s on the books in Burlington and Montpelier.

“I think the seven days for redemption of your private property — especially for someone who's without housing, and I would assume their top priority is trying to find housing where they could put their personal property — is too short,” said Sandy Dooley, a former South Burlington city councilor who was at the meeting.

Burke, the police chief, estimated between eight and 12 encampments exist in the city at a given time, though he didn’t know how many people that constituted. Most of those encampments are on private land, he said, meaning they wouldn’t be subject to the provisions in the proposal.

Burke said the city already aims to involve social services providers in all of its interactions with people who are living in unauthorized encampments.

Neither Burke nor Baker were aware of any previous instance in which the city has removed a homeless encampment from public land. Still, Baker said she believes the policy is important because the state’s well-documented housing crisis continues to make it particularly difficult for people with lower incomes to find a place to live.

The proposal comes as Chittenden County is falling short of meeting its affordable housing goals, according to data released in October by a coalition of housing and regional planning organizations. According to the Champlain Housing Trust, the county had a rental vacancy rate in June of 0.4%. The rate has continually declined since 2016.

South Burlington city councilors expressed support for the proposed policy at the Nov. 21 meeting. Baker said city staff are now further refining the policy and will likely bring it back to the council later this month.

There will also be more opportunities for public comment on the policy, she said.

Read the story on VTDigger here: South Burlington weighs new policy for homeless encampments .

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