RUTLAND, Vt. — A federal judge said Wednesday that three homeless men will be allowed to stay at their camp in the woods in Burlington while he considers a lawsuit seeking to prevent the city from dismantling the encampment without first offering alternative housing.
U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford announced the decision while hearing arguments about whether Burlington officials are violating the rights of the city’s homeless community by threatening to close down a tent encampment on a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain but not relocating them first.
City officials said the encampment is in an environmentally sensitive area and the people staying there can go to homeless shelters or other areas in the city where homeless encampments currently exist. They also said there are social services programs that help the homeless to find permanent housing.
The ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of three people living at the encampment off the city’s North Avenue and other unnamed homeless people in the city.
“The plaintiffs are some of the city of Burlington’s most vulnerable, unsheltered homeless folks living in tents,” Jared Carter, an attorney for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said during the hearing in federal court in Rutland.
City officials testified that most encampments on city land are allowed to operate unless certain criteria, such as violations of the law or health and safety issues, are met that require officials to remove them. They said services are available to help the homeless find shelter. The number of homeless people, however, exceeds the number of available beds in shelters and other programs.
“The city is trying to have a balance for its citizens, including the homeless,” said City Attorney Eileen Blackwood.
The encampment in question is on about 12 acres of city-owned land just north of downtown Burlington. There are an estimated 10 to 12 other encampments in the city where the city isn’t moving the people who live there, different officials said.
Crawford said at the close of the day-long hearing that the city appeared to be using a “don’t-ask, don’t-tell” policy of allowing the encampments. “They only close them down if they make trouble,” he said.
Last week, Crawford issued an emergency order blocking the city from removing the North Avenue encampment where a handful of people have been living in tents. The order remains in effect until he issues his decision, expected early next week.
The city dismantled a separate homeless encampment in the south end of the city last week. Some residents of that camp have found a new location near the closed site.
According to Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, the homeless camp was closed because of reports of domestic violence, a disturbance involving a gun and other reported activity.
The people who are staying on the North Avenue property say they have looked for permanent homes, but have been unable to find any.
“I have nowhere to go. All the shelters are full,” said Brian Croteau, one of the people bringing the lawsuit.