Each day, residents of the Sears Lane encampment face the threat of complete removal of their dwellings. The decision by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger to clear the camp stems from a federal law enforcement warrant and raid of the camp on October 14, citing multiple criminal activities. However, the process to remove those encamped does not stem from a single incident. Instead, the City continues its longstanding, years-long push toward the camp’s removal through purposeful inaction, punitive policy, and claims of public safety fears.
“The City, by not creating a plan to manage the camp created the conditions so when people moved in there was no management, there was no organization, there were no rules,” said Stephen Marshall, a homeless advocate who has lived at the Sears Lane site.
The following timeline outlines events and City actions that displace those at Sears Lane without offering permanent and reasonable alternatives.
🗓 October 2015: The City of Burlington introduces its Housing Action Plan and a “housing first” policy. Its focus is to “provide homeless people with housing quickly, then providing services as needed.” Nearly six years later in March 2021, Weinberger touts five housing policy reforms deemed “unfinished business” from the 2015 plan. Neither housing first nor houselessness is mentioned.
🗓 August 2017: The Burlington City Council finalizes a resolution that includes the adoption of an “encampment removal procedure.” It allows the city to remove encampments when “unacceptable levels persist,” according to a 2021 VTDigger interview with Weinberger.
🗓 August/October 2017: Former Chief of Police Brandon del Pozo blames lack of enforcement on “quality of life offenses” after an unhoused individual is involved in a Church Street stabbing. Two months later, the Burlington Police Department would use another unhomed individual’s offenses to elevate public safety concerns around those without permanent living situations.
🗓 October 2017: The City of Burlington evicts a homeless encampment on a city lot off of Sears Lane over safety concerns. Those in the encampment relocate to another lot nearby.
🗓 December 2017: In response to del Pozo’s statements, the Burlington City Council finalizes a resolution to criminalize quality of life offenses as misdemeanor offenses.
🗓 May 2018: Weinberger and Burlington city councilors center the discussion of encampments and the unhoused around low-barrier shelter funding, while continuing to frame camps like Sears Lane as detrimental to public safety.
🗓 July 2020: The City applies for grant money for the use of 20 shipping containers to use as a low barrier shelter on Sears Lane, facilitated by ANEW Place. Residents of the camp, who were not invited to the public forum organized by Councilor Joan Shannon, ask instead for basic amenities like waste management removal.
🗓 April 2021: WCAX’s Ike Bendavid reports on Sears Lane’s growing trash situation. A day later, Bendavid receives comment from Weinberger, who calls the site condition “not acceptable.” In both pieces, Bendavid states residents of the nearby Lakeside community are fearful of their safety, with none speaking on camera or on record.
🗓 May 2021: Residents of the Sears Lane encampment speak to VTDigger and reiterate their need for regular trash removal and other basic amenities from the city, having pooled their own money to purchase dumpsters to remove trash at the camp. Residents also mention that people from outside the tight-knit community were discarding trash at the site.
🗓 September 2021: The City puts out a Request For Proposals (RFP) to manage Sears Lane for one year. It states the City provides trash and scrap removal as well as portable toilets. Residents request access to water for shower and washing facilities as well as electricity and lighting, which would eliminate sustained generator use. The City receives no bids.
🗓 October 13, 2021: Burlington Police and federal law enforcement execute a warrant related to a narcotics investigation involving one camp resident. This prompts Weinberger to demand the camp’s removal on October 19.
🗓 October 18, 2021: The deadline is extended to October 26. Still, a judge orders that the City could remove belongings in the camp before the deadline, which results in the destruction of one home at the encampment.
🗓 October 25, 2021: The Burlington City Council passes an amended resolution which allows campers time to complete housing plans. Residents are offered travel funds to leave the city, a recreational vehicle outside Sears Lane, or a 30-day hotel voucher. Two Sears Lane residents are fighting the camp’s removal in Chittenden Superior Court. The hearing is scheduled for October 28.
Top photo: Burlington city workers prepare to clear Sears Lane encampment on October 22. Photo courtesy Trey Cook.
Matt Moore is a writer from Vermont. He is on the editorial collective of The Rake Vermont.