Local merchants rail against uptick in downtown crime
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials, downtown merchants, local lawmakers and Addison County human services providers have begun what they believe could be a long process of dealing with a group of houseless individuals who’ve been camping under the Cross Street Bridge off Bakery Lane.
Some businesses told the Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday they’ve been “terrified” by destructive and threatening behavior they said has been shown by some of the campers, particularly since the beginning of the summer.
They pointed to specific cases of their businesses’ windows and doors being smashed, illegal dumping, the theft of cash, campfires wafting smoke into outdoor dining areas, threatening, harassment, stalking, car vandalism, public nudity and drinking, trespassing and other infractions.
“We need our institutions to step up and act, not point to another entity as the responsible agent,” said Mary Cullinane, co-owner of The Stone Mill on Mill Street, in a recent email to the selectboard. “We need this situation to be treated with urgency, reinforcing the belief that for any community to survive, there must be faith in its members’ safety. Most importantly, we need a recognition that empathy and responsibility can coexist.”
One of the most affected businesses has been Mister Ups, located mere feet from the houseless group’s encampment.
Rick Buck, co-owner of Mister Ups, spoke Tuesday of how customers have been harassed for cigarettes and/or money, a break-in that included a smashed window and vandalized deck curtains, vandalized cars in the restaurant parking lot, trespassing, requests for free food, public urination/defecation and alcohol/drug use.
Buck said he’s noticed people hanging out under the bridge during the past two years, and said it became a camping site around six months ago.
“At one point there were at least seven tents under the bridge, around it and on both sides of it,” he reported. “It’s become obvious people are living there 24 hours a day.”
He said campers’ behavior has prompted some Mister Ups workers to ask for escorts to their vehicles at night. Customers ask Buck if it’s safe to park under the bridge.
“The last month has been very tumultuous,” he said.
Amey Ryan, who runs a real estate business downtown, and Karen Duguay, director of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), also voiced their concerns.
“There has to be some solution in the immediate future to be able to try to deter some of this vandalism — and frankly, terrorism,” Ryan said. “We feel unheard, we feel terrorized in our own community.”
Duguay warned the current situation, if left unchecked, could escalate to a point where Middlebury’s economic vitality becomes significantly diminished. She called for state and local acknowledgement that the issues of homelessness, addiction, mental health and economic development are intertwined.
“When the businesses pull out, as they are in many of our communities, people all of a sudden are left saying, ‘What happened?’” she said.
The BMP encouraged affected Middlebury business owners to submit “impact statements” to the board. (Readers can view the statements at the bottom of this story.)
Middlebury Police Chief Jason Covey was among those at the packed selectboard meeting, where almost two hours were devoted to issues surrounding the growing unhoused community. He said he’s upped foot patrols in the Bakery Lane area to monitor the group of houseless folks, and he urged Middlebury residents to be vigilant and to call the department if they see any problems.
The chief also noted the Bakery Lane campers have a legal right to remain on public property if they aren’t breaking the law. Police since May 1 have received 24 calls for service at the Cross Street Bridge, and none of those visits produced an arrestable offense, he noted.
A couple of those calls have involved alleged fights among the campers. But people involved either decline to prosecute or say, “We don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s all good here,” Covey said.
Covey said some of the local houseless individuals are aware of their rights and the town’s limited authority over them. He pointed to a June 21 letter the Vermont ACLU sent to Vermont municipal leaders stating, among other things, that “Local leaders should be aware that ordinances and policies that punish individuals for sleeping in public when they have nowhere else to go violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. For this reason, while municipalities can prohibit sheltering at certain locations, they cannot ban people from sheltering on all public land.”
The chief and his officers have identified one woman as having been responsible for many of the property crimes reported in the downtown during the past month. Middlebury crime log entries and a statewide database show 32-year-old Cassandra Chasse has had 78 interactions with Vermont law enforcement, 30 of those involving Middlebury PD, according to Covey. Twenty-two of those local interactions have occurred since Sept. 18, he added.
“We have arrested her seven times,” he said, adding she’s suspected of having committed additional crimes.
On Facebook, Two Brothers owners lamented how several members of their staff left work three weeks ago and found someone they believed to be a resident of the houseless camp smashing windows of their cars, which were parked in the municipal lot off Mill Street.
Covey lamented loopholes in the state’s judicial system that have resulted in Chasse — and indeed other suspects in property crimes — being arraigned in Addison County Superior Court only to be quickly released the same day.
“It’s part of our process in Vermont and something police have no say in,” Covey said.
Records show that Chasse was arrested by Middlebury police three times during a 24-hour period on Sept. 22-23. After that alleged crime spree, Chasse was ordered held on $500 bail. Covey said she spent the weekend in lockup, was arraigned the ensuing Monday and promptly released.
“That’s the revolving door we see sometimes,” lamented Covey, who on Tuesday noted that Chasse is now in Rutland County. “We have seen a change during the past couple of decades on the use of bail,” he added, by way of explaining why judges issue such quick releases.
It’s a revolving door that’s also been frustrating for Addison County State’s Attorney Eva Vekos, who said she’s been prosecuting vandalism, harassment, larceny and other cases such as those associated with the crime spike in the downtown. But she said current state statutes — and indeed the Vermont Constitution — severely restrict judges from holding folks on bail who’ve been accused of misdemeanor offenses.
Bail, Vekos added, is intended to ensure that a defendant returns to court for prosecution.
“There are very limited circumstances when you can hold someone in custody without bail, and that’s if you’re charged with a life felony — such as sexual or aggravated assault, homicide — and in the case of a felony, where there’s an act of violence against a person.”
Cassandra Chasse’s alleged offenses don’t qualify under the limited statutory criteria for being held without excessive bail, according to Vekos.
She noted cases where a judge OK’s mental health evaluations for defendants, a process that can take up to a year. If the defendant is deemed mentally incompetent, they can’t be prosecuted, she said.
Several among the current houseless population in Middlebury are struggling with mental health and/or drug dependency issues, local officials noted.
“The tools we have under the law right now are very limited,” Vekos said.
LEVEL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Reps. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, and Jubilee McGill, D-Bridport, along with state Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, listened intently to Tuesday’s discussion.
Hardy chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee and is a member of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee. Like Vekos, she noted that “excessive bail is prohibited by our state Constitution. It’s not something where the three of us in this room could introduce a bill next session.”
Instead, lawmakers would have to propose a Constitutional amendment, a process that would take five years and include votes by both the General Assembly and the public.
Hardy said the strict language on bail reflects the state’s effort to ensure a level justice system for people of all incomes.
The Legislature during the past few sessions has taken steps to promote more affordable housing ($500 million over the past four years) and has also increased funding for the state’s community mental health agencies (an 8% bump in 2022 and another 5% hike for 2023), according to Hardy.
She and her colleagues promised continued action on challenges facing the houseless, but she urged constituents and town officials to also demand action from Gov. Phil Scott and his administration.
“We have asked them repeatedly for a plan about how to deal with the housing situation in Vermont, and repeatedly the Department for Children & Families, the Agency of Human Services and the governor’s office have failed to give us a plan,” Hardy said.
Local human services providers shared their views on the scope and complexity of dealing with some members of the local houseless population. Public land off Bakery Lane isn’t the only place that unhoused people have picked for camping, officials acknowledged. They also cited areas along the Otter Creek — the so-called “Happy Trail” — and near the Green Mountain Power substation in the Marble Works. The latter location was the scene of some serious crimes, including a sexual assault, a stabbing, arson complaint and a suicide attempt, according to Covey.
Heidi Lacey is executive director of the Charter House Emergency Shelter, a 25-cot facility at 27 North Pleasant St. The shelter has consistently been full and its “emergency overflow option” is used regularly by a handful of individuals, according to Lacey.
She estimated there are currently 161 houseless folks in the county, 44 of whom are children ages 17 or younger.
“This number does not include individuals that are unhoused and who may not be working with an agency within Addison County but whom may be passing through, even regularly between Burlington and Rutland/Bennington,” she qualified.
The average length of stay within Vermont shelters ranges from 150 days to more than 200 days, according to Lacey, who noted the Charter House’s average length of stay is currently 168 days.
“There’s no quick fix,” Lacey cautioned.
UNCOMFORTABLE IN A SHELTER
Lacey said the county’s Housing Coalition has become re-energized and will take a lead in studying, and suggesting solutions for, Middlebury’s current houseless situation. The task force is made up of a variety of social service agency officials, lawmakers, advocates and community members.
Coalition members this summer began a “street outreach” strategy of checking in with houseless individuals to gauge their needs. Lacey said that outreach will increase this fall.
She explained some of those congregating under the Cross Street Bridge and elsewhere in town aren’t comfortable in a shelter setting, but will accept food and other assistance.
Lacey agreed with Covey’s assertion that the majority of the Bakery Lane campers — which she currently placed at 7-10 — are upset with those perpetrating vandalism and other downtown crimes.
“They just want to be safe,” Lacey said of majority of the houseless group, adding, “This problem is much bigger than what we’re seeing under the bridge.”
The shelter, according to Lacey, has seen more transient guests this year, including some displaced by the July flooding in Washington County.
AT THE ENCAMPMENT
The Independent visited the Bakery Lane encampment late Monday afternoon. There were around three tents and three people — two men and a woman — sitting at the base at the bridge pier on the Mister Ups side of the creek. One of the men — who gave a first name of Kenneth — agreed to speak with this reporter. Kenneth’s hands were bloody and his pummeled face told the story of a fight he had had that morning with another camper. Kenneth’s right eye was swollen shut and some of his teeth had been broken.
“We have good people here and bad people here,” said Kenneth, an open can of beer at his side.
He said he’d been living under the bridge, off and on, for two years. He lamented the lack of available housing and insisted most of his fellow campers were good people who reject violence and vandalism.
Kenneth wasn’t in good enough physical or emotional shape to continue the interview.
“We are people; we are human beings,” he said, a tear rolling from his good eye.
Rachel Cummings is executive director of the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC). The Middlebury-based mental health agency’s clientele has included members of the houseless population.
“I really feel for our business community. We need a thriving business community; that’s vital to me as an employer,” she told the crowd on Tuesday night. “I’m sorry about what you’re going through.”
The Counseling Service is now trying to create more “low-barrier access for people to get into mental health care quicker, without a lot of bureaucratic involvement that can be a barrier for people,” Cummings said. “But before that happens, we need for people to engage with us; we can’t force engagement. And engagement starts with trust and a relationship.”
She said the street outreach program will be key in building that trust. Meanwhile, CSAC has several methods for reaching the population (see box on this page).
Cummings however noted the staffing shortages that CSAC and other nonprofits are currently experiencing.
“We now have just two clinicians available 24/7 for the entire county,” she reported.
The selectboard on Tuesday mapped out a series of potential short- and long-term solutions for the town’s houseless situation and the resulting impact on businesses.
Those ideas include:
• Ongoing support of the town’s housing coalition to work with police, businesses and social service agencies in troubleshooting problems as they arise.
• Extending the current curfew (midnight to dawn on the town green) to include the Bakery Lane and Frog Hollow areas.
• Installing security cameras in municipal parking lots and other public areas.
• Lobbying for legislative action to battle homelessness.
• Creating a fund to help defray the costs of vandalism to affected businesses.
• Supporting local nonprofits in the creation of more affordable housing and expanded mental health services.
Middlebury selectboard Chair Brian Carpenter pledged to make the homelessness issue and related business impacts a top issue for the board.
“I promise we’re not going to let this drop,” he told the crowd. “I think we’ll make progress together on this.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].Impact Statements from Businesses 10-10-23 v1
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