Letter to the editor: Homelessness situation requires legislative help
Thanks for reporting the Middlebury selectboard’s Oct. 10 hearing about our downtown crime wave. I’m not a business owner and nobody has vandalized my car, but I am astonished by what I read in the Middlebury police log. If any readers missed the last month of logs, take a look at Victoria Jette’s letter in the Oct. 12 Addie.
One astonishing fact is the repetitive nature of the vandalism: according to a Charter House representative, one person has caused upwards of $100,000 in damage to cars and businesses. Over 10 days, according to Addie police logs, the same individual was arrested seven times. Seven times she was then released by our state-appointed county judge, who was following state guidelines.
Another astonishing fact: according to Police Chief Jason Covey, his department has no legal way to shut down the you-don’t-have-the-right-to-move-us encampment under the Cross Street Bridge. Nor do Middlebury police have any legal way to prevent the campers from becoming intoxicated, getting into fights with each other, and starting campfires that send smoke into the restaurant next door.
One widespread but false assumption is that the aggression reported in the police log is the result of being priced out of affordable housing. That is a contributor but not a fundamental cause. Most homeless people do not vandalize property or consume so many intoxicants that they endanger themselves or others. To assume that being priced out of housing leads to destructive behavior is pejorative toward homeless people. Indeed, to excuse glaring cases of recidivism, on grounds that this is caused by homelessness, could easily be motivating the behavior. Once you have smashed a succession of car windows, been arrested by the cops and been immediately released by a judge, why not — the next time you feel angry and want attention — do it again?
Middlebury has a rare pedestrian-friendly downtown. Filling empty storefronts is a never-ending challenge. Most business owners operate on low margins or in the red. Now they find themselves paying damages caused by a small but unstoppable number of individuals who seem to require either residential treatment or criminal incarceration. The majority are from Addison County, but some have been attracted by our generous social services. Not everyone camping under the Cross Street Bridge is waiting for space in a shelter; some are there because they refuse to comply with shelter rules.
According to Chief Covey and Addison County State’s Attorney Eva Vekos, three legal issues are preventing the judicial system from protecting victims:
1) The arrest-and-release revolving door, for people who commit violence against property rather than persons, is currently standard in Vermont courts and supposedly is required by the state constitution. But according to Vekos, Section 7575 of the Vermont Statutes is a possible solution — it allows bail to be denied to the accused if they “repeatedly violated conditions of release.”
2) The American Civil Liberties Union has informed towns across the state, and apparently homeless people as well, that they have the right to camp on public land. That may be the case, but the rest of us have the right to be protected from public nuisances. Currently the only enforcement mechanism against unsafe or insanitary camping is the equivalent of a parking ticket, which the campers in question have learned they can ignore. Therefore we need stronger enforcement mechanisms. One possible solution is to revive vagrancy laws in a way that protects everyone’s rights.
3) Psychiatric evaluations, of individuals who repeatedly endanger themselves or others and who may require involuntary commitment, are taking the state of Vermont up to a year. Such delays are surely contributing to avoidable deaths even if this has yet to happen in Middlebury.
No, Vermont’s constitution does not require us to accept that, from now on, our downtowns will become open-air asylums for people who threaten themselves or others. Contributing to this situation, not just in Middlebury but in Burlington, Brattleboro and elsewhere, are state policies that our Vermont legislators can change.
The next legislative session begins on Jan. 4. We should all ask Middlebury’s delegation — including Ruth Hardy, Robin Scheu, Amy Sheldon, and Jubilee McGill — to get started on these three issues so that, on Jan. 4, they can hit the ground running with public hearings and legislative proposals.
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