'Let's Coordinate': Burlington Homeless, Business Owners Feel Tension After Park Closure

Aug 26, 2019

Burlington’s City Hall Park closed in July for a big renovation. The park, which hosted events like the summer farmer’s market, was also a place where many homeless people spent their days.

With the park’s closure, they’ve had to relocate, and the displacement has led to an uptick in problems downtown according to some business owners.

There’s a chain link fence running all the way around City Hall Park downtown. Three people sit against it, a few yards away from the bustling shops on Church Street.

A metal fence went up around Burlington's City Hall Park in July when construction crews prepared to make improvements to the park.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

In the middle of the group is a man who only gives his name as Dragon. He’s sitting on a lawn-chair that’s low to the ground, smoking a cigarette. He’s homeless, and he used to hang out at the park.

“Oh yeah, they’re trying to deter the homeless, and I’m not having that,” Dragon said, gesturing at the fence. “But I come here every morning at 4:30, 5:00.  I’m here, I’ll sit right here and dare anyone try to move me.”

Burlington doesn’t care about homeless people, Dragon said.

Dragon, who declined to give his last name, said he sits against the fence everyday at City Hall Park in Burlington. He used to hang out in the park before it was closed for improvements.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

“They look down on us," he said. "They walk around, ‘Oh, scourge of society.’  No, we’re not."

Up the street at Piesanos, a pizza joint, general manager Zoe Gagnon is serving some customers.

Since the park closed, more homeless people have been hanging out in front of the restaurant, Gagnon said.

“When there’s 15 people sitting out there and they’re asking everybody, ‘Hey, can I get money, can I get a cigarette’ — it’s like, paying customers don’t want to walk in,” she said.

Piesanos general manager Zoe Gagnon said the presence of people outside the pizza joint asking for money or cigarettes deters paying customers from entering.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Gagnon’s concern is shared by others in the business community, who say unruly behavior by homeless and transient people is worse this summer than in past years. The Burlington Police Department says incidents involving homeless people appear to be trending up, though Deputy Chief Jon Murad cautions that the department doesn’t have hard data.

“Anecdotally, we have felt that there’s been an increase in some of these kinds of calls,” Murad said. “Whether that truly means an increase, or whether that has to do with a perception of increase, is an open question.”

These problems are seasonal, and tend to peak in the summer, according to Kelly Devine, executive director of the Burlington Business Association. Devine thinks the city needs to have a conversation about what behavior should be allowed downtown.

"Anecdotally, we have felt that there's been an increase in some of these kinds of calls. Whether that truly means an increase, or whether that has to do with a perception of increase, is an open question." — Burlington Deputy Police Chief Jon Murad on conflicts between the city's homeless and business communities

“Regardless of whether you’re housed or whether you have other mitigating issues, it’s really about how you behave when you're in the public space,” she said. “Are you screaming at the top of your lungs and yelling at people and swearing, and do we as a community think that that’s okay?”

Some in the business community are asking for action. The Church Street Marketplace Commission asked the city to consider three ordinances: a ban on off-premise alcohol sales before 10 a.m. and prohibiting portable seating and sleeping downtown.

More from VPR: Chittenden County's 2019 Point-In-Time Count Shows Rise In Chronic Homelessness [May 21]

The proposals are meant to prevent disruptive behavior, according to Jeff Nick, the chair of the commission.

“Spending the entire day sitting on a milk crate or laying on a blanket or falling asleep on the blanket just feels like an anti-social behavior," he said. "That really goes back to our mission, which is keeping the street vibrant, clean and safe."

“Sleeping and sitting should never be a crime — especially on a public street,” said Jay Diaz, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Vermont. “Whatever their intention is, these [ordinance proposals] will clearly disproportionately impact people who are experiencing homelessness and who are in poverty.”

"Regardless of whether you're housed or whether you have other mitigating issues, it's really about how you behave when you're in the public space. Are you screaming at the top of your lungs and yelling at people and swearing, and do we as a community think that that's okay?" — Kelly Devine, Burlington Business Association executive director

Burlington has been grappling with issues related to homelessness for years, like how to expand access to public bathrooms. But the city, widely seen as a bastion of liberal politics, has faced lawsuits from the ACLU over its treatment of low-income residents.

In a recently settled case, the ACLU sued on behalf of a man barred from City Hall Park. The settlement requires the city to rewrite its ‘no-trespass’ ordinance. In a separate case, the ACLU contends the city violated the rights of a man when he was kicked off an encampment on city property.

Members of the homeless community say at the heart of the problem is a lack of communication.

"Jjesterville, Capital of Tipton County."
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Jesse Tipton, along with with his dog, Sadie, and five other people, live at a small encampment in Burlington, nestled away in pocket of trees. Near a picnic table in the middle of the makeshift camp site is a sign that reads, “Welcome to Jjestterville, capital of Tipton County. Please register at sherrif’s (sic) office.”

Tipton has been homeless off and on for most of his life. This latest stint began after he got divorced four years ago. The 53-year old veteran says he has a housing voucher through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, but he hasn’t been able to find a place.

“Since I been outside for so long, you know I have no rental history, and I got an 80-pound dog," he said. "So not a lot of landlords want to rent to me."

The people who cause problems downtown are just a small portion of the homeless community and some aren’t even homeless, Tipton said. “For the most part we’re good people — we are. We’re decent, good people. We’re just poorer than they are.”

Jesse Tipton said there could be better coordination between the city and the homeless community about sharing space.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Tipton said relations with the city have been getting better. He’s even comfortable calling the cops if there’s a problem at camp, but he said there’s still tension between the homeless and business community.

“If we sit for too long on the benches, they try to run us off, and we have nowheres else to go sit,” Tipton said. “I realize that there’s parts of our communities that hang out in their doorways ... and I agree that should stop. So let’s coordinate, get together so you get some space and we get some space.”

"I realize that there's parts of our communities that hang out in their doorways ... and I agree that should stop. So let's coordinate, get together so you get some space and we get some space." — Jesse Tipton on how to resolve conflict between the Burlington homeless and business communities

For now, city leaders have tapped the brakes on the new rules put forward by the Church Street Marketplace Commission. City Councilor Chip Mason, the chair of the ordinance committee, said he’s not aware of any plans to bring the proposals to the floor.

“I’m not comfortable, sort of, the ordinance committee on its own taking up these fixes without a broader discussion of what are the problems and what are the right fixes that satisfy a broader constituency,” Mason said.

Tipton, who lives at an encampment, said he’s glad that, at least for now, city leaders seem willing to listen.