Work to clear a wooded area on the median near Interstate 89 Exit 14 was completed by Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), today. The project began in July and follows the discovery of a homeless encampment there last fall.
Agency of Transportation Senior Manager Dave Blackmore said Vermont State Police informed VTrans of the encampment and incidents there in July and requested the agency look at the site – after the state police cleared it of people. VTrans discovered a large amount of garbage and debris at the site, as well as thick brush. Using funds from the local VTrans budget, agency workers began removing the garbage, debris and brush from the area in order to make the area grassy and easier to maintain.
Blackmore said the agency hopes clearing the area will deter another encampment there in the future.
“We wanted to try and address that [garbage and debris], and wanted to discourage, obviously, people using that area,” Blackmore said, adding not only is the exit a no trespassing area, it is also dangerous with the volume of high-speed vehicles traveling around it.
The agency finished work at the site Thursday.
Last year, Vermont State Police received a report of an assault or disorderly conduct near Exit 14, according to Vermont State Police Lt. Robert Lucas. When officers responded, they noticed a large amount of garbage and debris.
“It was quite a bit,” Lucas said. “It was pretty overwhelming.”
Police also noticed four people living on the site. Lucas said they did not want to force them to move immediately, but instead wanted to connect them with resources.
“The last thing we wanted to do is be the big bad police and displace people,” Lucas said. “We wanted to bring them resources as opposed to move them along to another area.”
To that end, state police and local organizations, including Veterans Affairs, spoke with the individuals – who at that point numbered two – a man and a woman, presumably in their mid-30s.
The police and local organizations offered information on housing, mental health counseling, drug and alcohol counseling and other resources. They also showed the individuals the boundaries of where they could and could not walk and camp, Lucas said.
“Our main goal is to get them into permanent housing,” he said. “We brought the whole gamut of services.”
But the two individuals did not wish to discuss those matters. According to Lucas, they were both employed and “just kind of in a hard place.”
The police gave them time to move their belongings, proceeding the July start of VTrans’ clearing project there. Lucas does not know where the individuals relocated.
“It wasn’t just a, ‘Let’s clear them out and get them out,’” he said. “It was really done with some forethought and trying to get these individuals connected with resources.”
Not just Exit 14
Despite few people living in the encampment in recent times, there were a couple areas with more garbage than others, Lucas said.
“Probably over the years there’s been a population going in there,” he added.
According to Lucas, encampments aren’t just an Exit 14 issue. There is also a population of people that live behind the Holiday Inn and other encampments in the area, he said.
“This is not just Chittenden County, not just Exit 14.”
The reasons why people live in these outdoor spaces vary. Some people, Lucas said, wish to travel around. He’s heard of folks living outdoors in the north in warmer months and heading south in the winter.
“There’s a demographic within society that wants to go ahead and not conform to what we consider normal living standards,” Lucas said. “We’re not trying to dictate that for anyone, but obviously if they want resources or need resources, we encourage them to [reach out].”
But for others, living in an encampment seems like their only option. Either they cannot find employment, or even with employment are unable to afford housing, Lucas said.
“Unfortunately, the population we encounter is usually aware of the resources, but there is a waitlist,” he said. “They’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Lucas encourages these individuals to reach out to local organizations like the Vermont Housing Authority, COTS, Howard Mental Health, the Veterans Association and other organizations that provide housing and counseling support.
Locally, there is no camping ordinance in South Burlington, according to City Manager Kevin Dorn. That means the city can’t forbid people to camp on city land but private property owners can refuse people the right to camp on their premises.
“We do have a police sergeant who has served as an informal liaison to people who are homeless,” Dorn said. “Recognizing their own civil rights, we try to keep track of camps.”
The city tries, without being too intrusive, to make sure the people in the camps are alright, he added.