During a recent meeting of the Burlington City Council, the panel heard a report on homelessness in the city and reviewed a possible ordinance on unruly behavior, which some considered related.
In December the council’s Public Safety Committee met to discuss how the city council can do more to address homelessness in the community. Ward 8 Independent Adam Roof outlined some of the initial recommendations that resulted from outreach with community partners. “Recommendation number one is to increase the capacity of the low barrier shelter and conduct a one year pilot period to investigate the benefits of 12 month operations; to review and possibly adopt the city’s internal encampment removal procedure; short but important increase public restroom access in the downtown core; increase communications between the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance and the city council; finally a recommendation that asks the administration to put forward a budget with increased funding for street outreach and for housing retention and that the administration explore and support state legislation changes for expanded Medicaid coverage for social work positions relating to homelessness and low income housing.”
The lack of public restrooms in the downtown area was a focus of discussion, as reflected by Ward 7 Democrat/Progressive Ali Dieng. “The priority basically for me is to have these street bathrooms. We need to have those as soon as possible because there will be another resolution that will be coming up. To me it won’t make sense until we make the appropriate steps. What can we put provisionary outside in order for the homeless people to be able use. That should happen today.”
The resolution Dieng referenced is consideration to adjust the city’s Quality of Life Ordinances. The council is considering penalties for alcohol consumption and possession in public places and public urination. Ward 5 Democrat Chip Mason: “The ordinance committee was directed to draft an ordinance that created a criminal penalty for repeat offenses of these types of violations: of aggressive and disruptive behavior such as but not limited to public urination, public drunkenness, littering, sexually aggressive catcalling. The stated goal was to foster an ordinance enforcement mechanism that preserves order, maximizes personal freedoms wherever possible, employs principle of escalating consequences where appropriate and inspires confidence in the law and institutions that enforce them by making sure that they are both fair and taken seriously.”
Mason noted that opposition focuses on the lack of public restrooms. During public comments, James Lockridge said without offering public facilities, the city is criminalizing people by forcing them into untenable situations. “Burlington is investing tens of millions of dollars in public infrastructure. The city is building pretty benches on Main Street and patios in City Hall Park not public rest rooms that would make our city a better place for both citizens and visitors.”
Ward 4 Republican Kurt Wright clarified that the resolution would create a criminal penalty after three offenses. “What we’re talking about here is people who are on the street and who are engaging in extremely bad conduct. We are not going after just people that are homeless or people that who have mental health issues we are going after the bad conduct of people that has resulted and escalated into actual stabbings among other homeless people, that has frightened women that are going to work downtown. This is a serious issue. We can talk and talk around this. But there needs to be consequences.”
The Quality of Life resolution was debated but not voted on. The homelessness report returned to the Public Safety Committee to develop action steps with the mayor’s office.
Audio from the Burlington City Council meeting is courtesy of Channel 17 Town Meeting Television.