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Despite limited shelter options, Burlington clears Battery Street encampment

People clear debris on snowy ground and place objects into bulldozer.
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public
City workers remove debris with heavy equipment from Battery Street in Burlington on Jan. 19, 2024.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

Jessa Salisbury had been living near the top of Battery Street in Burlington since the fall. She was the first to set up camp along the hill overlooking Lake Champlain a few months ago, she said, but not long after her arrival, more people erected tents along the path nearby.

On Friday morning, as temperatures in Burlington plummeted to some of their lowest so far this season, heavy equipment rolled down the Battery Street path and began picking up tents out of the snow.

Salisbury left Battery Street while the city workers cleared much of the encampment; knowing she wasn’t feeling well, one worker told her to “go lay down and come back,” she said. But when she returned about an hour later, all of her things were gone, including her Mickey Mouse backpack, which held her medications and a lockbox.

“I didn’t know I was coming back to nothing,” she said, incredulous. “I’m pissed.”

A woman with blonde hair and a blue coat standing in front of trees.
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public
Jessa Salisbury, who lived at the encampment on Battery Street in Burlington, returned on Jan. 19, 2024, to find her belongings gone.

Burlington bans camping in public parks, but had delayed enforcing the rule on Battery Street until the city’s new winter warming shelter opened in mid-December and winter eligibility for emergency motel rooms began, said Samantha Sheehan, a spokesperson for Mayor Miro Weinberger’s office.

Now that those options are available, the city has decided to move forward with clearing the encampment, which consisted of about 20 structures as of last week, Sheehan said. Notice was posted in Battery Park last Thursday, she said.

Yet city shelters and local motel rooms are regularly full. Earlier this week, Weinberger’s office sent a memo to the state Department for Children and Families, noting that the city has had to turn away people from the new warming shelter each night. Spaces at motels participating in the state’s shelter program are also frequently at capacity, leading the state to tell unhoused Vermonters to keep calling to secure a room.

In prior years, Salisbury had utilized the state’s motel program during the winter. This year, having heard that rooms are full, she hasn’t tried to land a spot. She said she feels mothers and families need a room more than she does. When she gets cold, she lights a candle.

“A three-wick candle goes a long way,” she said.

In December, a candle ignited a large fire at the encampment, though no one was hurt.

Shortly before noon on Friday, most tents along Battery Street appeared to have been cleared away.

Several occupied structures remained along the path. Sheehan said that city staff “are working with 8 remaining individuals at this location to provide service connection and assist with the removal and storage of property.” She said officials are “seeking to support them finding better shelter options in the coming days.”

According to Sheehan, the only items removed at the encampment today “were indicated to be trash or abandoned items by people within the encampment” to city workers. Some structures in the park had been vacated, she noted. Per city policy, the city stores an individual’s personal property for 30 days following an encampment removal.

Last spring, some Burlington city councilors eyed altering the city’s camping ordinance to allow people to camp on public lands when shelters are full, but Weinberger opposed the effort, according to reporting by Seven Days.

After the state evicted hundreds of Vermonters from its expanded, pandemic-era motel housing program this past summer, Chittenden County has reported a massive uptick in the number of people living unsheltered: in tents, in cars, and on the street. Homeless service providers and advocates have expressed concerns that communities will see even greater swells in unsheltered homelessness as the state plans to continue winding down the COVID-era program this spring.

Before leaving Battery Street to try and track down her Mickey Mouse backpack – which she hoped was held in city storage – Salisbury considered where she would sleep now.

“I will probably just makeshift camp somewhere else – for now,” she said. “What do they expect us to do?”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Corrected: January 22, 2024 at 11:15 AM EST
An earlier version of this story misidentified the machinery used to remove tents from the encampment.
Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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