Burlington clears out homeless encampments near vacant buildings

Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 5:47 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 13, 2023 at 7:33 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Crews in Burlington cleared out more homeless encampments in the city in recent days. Our Ike Bendavid spoke with concerned community members and people who are homeless who say more must be done.

Homeless housing is back under the microscope in Burlington. The Queen City has been dealing with an increase in homelessness since the beginning of the pandemic.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says homelessness has increased by 3% in the country since 2019. That total number stands at more than 582,000.

Burlington has taken steps to combat those statistics and find housing for its homeless population, including the pod community in the Old North End. The 30 pods are currently housing 33 people, and have a waiting list above 40, showing early signs of success in getting folks a temporary but stable place to stay.

However, the Champlain Housing Trust, which runs the pod community, says some 60-70 people are unsheltered daily in Burlington. That means there are still issues with homeless encampments around town.

A homeless encampment was cleaned up Monday at Memorial Auditorium in Burlington, and it’s not the only one. Just a few days ago, crews were down the block at the old YMCA building cleaning up an encampment there.

Community members tell me they are happy to see the cleanup, but those who say they are homeless say more needs to be done.

City crews cleaned up all sorts of debris on the steps of Memorial Auditorium, from bedding to needle caps to garbage.

“Taking up habitation on a city sidewalk is not going to be acceptable,” said Bill Ward, the director of permitting and inspections for Burlington.

This comes just a few days after crews picked up an encampment down the block at the old YMCA building.

Jason Burds sent us photos of belongings pouring into the street last week after he saw the encampment grow.

“It’s not safe to have that amount of garbage there. It was kind of getting out of hand,” said Burds of Winooski.

The two encampments were just down the road from Edmunds Elementary and Middle School on Main Street.

“There were kids who were afraid to walk home like down this way, so I would walk them to the bus. After seeing that accumulate, it made my role of walking kids to the bus more important,” said Malik Mines who works at Edmunds.

Friday, we talked with a man who said he lived in the encampment outside the old YMCA building at the corner of College and South Union streets. The building has broken windows and is covered with graffiti.

“It does look like clutter but where the hell am I supposed to put it?” Kevin Donaldson asked. “Do you want me to put it in your front yard or somewhere that’s abandoned?”

Donaldson says he chose to live in the shadows of the empty downtown building because he feels safe and it helped keep him warm.

“It’s just like having a home. You know the areas where people are going to come. You feel protected,” Donaldson said.

Monday, Sean Kelleher, who says he is homeless, suggested the former Y be turned into a warming shelter.

“It’s obviously a great space for the homeless. It would serve as a community center or anything along those lines,” Kelleher said.

But the building is privately owned.

“If it was city property, we could have acted immediately, but in the case where a property owner is involved, they have to take those steps,” Ward said.

He says the former Y was slated to be a hotel but those plans fell apart during the pandemic. In November it was sold again.

“As soon as they took ownership of the property, on that same day, they are the ones that installed that fence,” Ward said.

His office was in contact with the property manager last week about the encampment and he says they took action and that no one is squatting in the building.

As for Memorial Auditorium, Ward says city staffers go inside every day.

“There is use at the building. It’s not officially vacant as city ordinance is concerned,” Ward said.

I’m told that when police and city inspectors were at the old YMCA last week, one person was arrested on an outstanding warrant.

Ward tells me the new owners are working on a permit request to build. If it’s granted, construction fencing will go up.

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