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A Burlington apartment complex highlights the city's struggles with homelessness and drugs

At the entrance to an apartment building, a sign above the doorway reads "230 St. Paul Street." A sign nearby reads "Decker Towers."
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
The entrance to Decker Towers in Burlington on Feb. 20, 2024.

For decades, the 11-story Decker Towers complex in Burlington has housed low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

But for the last couple years, the building has been overwhelmed with people experiencing homelessness — some of whom are sleeping in stairwells, openly using drugs, relieving themselves in common spaces and harassing tenants.

And now, feeling unsupported by Decker Towers’ owner and the city, the building’s 160-odd residents are taking matters into their own hands.

The Fight for Decker Towers…” is the most recent cover story in Seven Days, and reporter Derek Brouwer sat down with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch to talk about his reporting. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: In writing this piece, I understand that you went to the building for several nights. What did you observe? And what impact is all of this having on both the tenants, and the people experiencing homelessness who've been using this complex?

A man poses for the camera.
Derek Brouwer

Derek Brouwer: I went to Decker Towers just to interview some residents who had reached out. When I was inside the building, it became really evident, very quickly, how out of control things are there, and how much movement there is inside and out of the building. After that one night, I decided I wanted to spend more time there.

I got to know, over the course of a week, many of the residents there, and spoke to some people who are living in the stairwells as well. What I encountered was residents who are emotionally torn up about this. When I say that, I mean torn between a real sense of compassion for what the people using the building are going through — but also a sense of frustration that has been building for many months, and those who are working at odds with each other. At the same time, there are people who are actually afraid to leave their apartments, and are barricading their apartments when they're inside of them at night to protect themselves from the people using the building to sleep or use drugs.

Those who I spoke to were aware of how they are perceived by residents — there have been enough clashes at this point. There were some people who were living in the stairwells who told me this is the closest thing they have to a home. While they know it's been upsetting for residents, and they can understand why — they are willing to make somebody mad to stay warm this winter.

What I encountered was residents who are emotionally torn up about this. When I say that, I mean torn between a real sense of compassion for what the people using the building are going through – but also a sense of frustration that has been building for many months.
Derek Brouwer

Mary Williams Engisch: Do we know what has led to this particular complex being such a hotspot for drug use and for illicit sheltering?

Derek Brouwer: It's a really complicated set of circumstances. I think some main things that are worth remembering are one, this building is for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. They have had a problem with some tenants being caught up in the drug trade in their apartments, facilitating drug sales. That has created a draw to the building that has been hard to manage because those tenants are inviting visitors in.

At the same time, there is not enough shelter space in Burlington. There are 250 people with nowhere to sleep at night this winter in the Chittenden County area. Those folks have also been pushed away from other types of places where they have tried to shelter. For instance, downtown. There's been so much public pressure about the use of those public spaces, as well.

Then third, Decker Towers is the largest apartment complex in Vermont. It was built in the early '70s, and its design reflects that. It's a building that is hard to secure; it's got cramped quarters, but most significantly — it has 22 stories combined with stairwells that provide a somewhat secluded area for people to use drugs or sleep.

Police cars are parked outside the entrance to an 11-story apartment building.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Burlington police vehicles are parked outside Decker Towers on Feb. 20, 2024.

Mary Williams Engisch: Break down where things are between the city and the Burlington Housing Authority, which is a federally funded agency that owns and manages Decker Towers, right?

Derek Brouwer: That's right. Right now, in the last few weeks, the city and Burlington Housing Authority seem to be at odds over what to do about the problems here. The Burlington Housing Authority and its director Steven Murray have been — he told lawmakers last month in testimony that he feels like the Burlington Housing Authority has done everything they can. What is needed to really address the problem are deeper reforms at the city and state level and more funding, things that he can't do.

Mayor Miro Weinberger sees this as a management issue and the responsibility, first and foremost, of the Burlington Housing Authority. He says that they have not gotten this under control and are not living up to those responsibilities. There's been a flurry of meetings between those two entities in recent weeks as this has started to really come to a head. As I understand that, the city has its own set of ideas that they think management should take to secure the building.

Drug paraphernalia is pictured on the ground in a stairwell.
James Buck
Seven Days
Needles and other drug paraphernalia is pictured in a stairwell at Decker Towers.

One sticking point is around security guards, which are expensive to have around the clock. The Burlington Housing Authority says it can't responsibly pay for those. So there is a question of how to do that, and that is the part where residents have stepped in.

Mary Williams Engisch: Yeah, in your article you wrote that some of the residents themselves have also dealt with addiction and homelessness, and they're empathetic to the people that are squatting in their building. At the same time, they told you they're desperate to have their own safe housing back. Can you break down the tension?

Derek Brouwer: The stakes of this are very high for residents who have gone through this as well, too. It's a corrosive environment for them. You have residents who are hiding. You have residents who, as they have gotten fed up, they have leaned more toward the confrontation approach, and are forming a neighborhood watch that is going to consist of volunteer patrols of the building. Residents are going to, or intend to, both patrol stairwells and hallways and tell people to leave, as well as sit at the front door and try to prevent people from entering.

Mary Williams Engisch: You mentioned in your reporting that they're sort of forming a tenant militia, arming themselves with pepper spray, stun guns, knives, things like that.

Reisdents place weapons atop the entrance sign of an apartment complex.
James Buck
Seven Days
Decker residents who are fed up with the incursion of non-residents and drug use show the weapons they have accrued for self-defense for a portrait outside the building.

What does this story about Decker say about Burlington's struggle at large over the years to address increased homelessness and drug use? It seems like this particular case is kind of a microcosm of some of the city's biggest challenges.

Derek Brouwer: In a way, it does reflect everything that is going on in the city — and in the state as well. This has been front of mind for people in Burlington, but one of the things that really drew me to Decker Towers is that, in a way, what is happening at Decker Towers is what has been going on around the city. But I don't know if people in the city realize how this has been moved, and is affecting its vulnerable residents most directly.

This is a more serious and concerning situation than what we've heard a lot about, which is people misusing City Hall Park or panhandling downtown, or some of the erratic behavior there that really catches a lot of attention — that's got a lot of public political attention. There's a way in which what's going on at Decker is actually hidden from view. I think that it calls for a kind of urgency in the response, when we realize that the people being most affected by these unmet social needs around addiction and housing are being borne on some of the most vulnerable neighbors.

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