Op/Ed

Editorial: Is homelessness the town’s responsibility?

ANGELO LYNN

Three weeks ago, a Middlebury-based group of local human service providers revitalized a task force to address the issues around the town’s houseless population. At that first meeting, the group reassessed the current lay of the land and came away with some notable takeaways, including: the problem is likely to get worse, hold criminals accountable, and the town-business community need better lines of communication. 

Short-term steps were also outlined, including the need to increase police patrols in the downtown, and expand clinical outreach to the houseless to better understand their needs and develop personal relationships with them. 

As an approach to the problem, it’s basic and positive. It’s also fitting. Middlebury has long been a compassionate community which tries to help those in need. But does the approach touch on the heart of what is a community issue?

The houseless problem is more complicated than just providing shelter. The reality, said Middlebury Police Sgt. Vegar Boe, is “you’re going to have people who still need other services,” referring to mental health issues, substance use disorder and employment counseling. As many most involved in tackling these issues have said, it’s going to take the whole village working together to make a difference.

But there are unique factors with homelessness. 

First and foremost, it’s in our face. It’s right downtown in public parks and spaces. It can be offensive, destructive and detrimental to the livelihoods of many businesses. It threatens the downtown’s vitality. The petty crimes and annoyances are frustrating and disheartening. Just ask a downtown business owner. 

To complicate the issue, local police and town leaders can’t move people off public property without just cause. The citizens, and they are citizens, have a legal right to camp and live under the Cross Street Bridge in Middlebury or in whatever public places they choose that are not otherwise legally prohibited. Nor can they be arrested and detained for civil disturbances such as open containers, public urination or smoking marijuana, even if it is a disturbance to the broader community. 

Nor, courts have ruled, can communities designate all public property off-limits to those who are houseless, which, when put another way, adds a new dimension to the issue; that is, courts are really saying that communities have a responsibility to provide places for the houseless to be.  

My hunch is that’s a responsibility most of us have not fully embraced.

I say that because to embrace the responsibility would mean being willing to afford adequate systems of care. Ask yourself if you’re willing to pay for housing the homeless, for mental counseling, or their training to get a job?

The reality is obvious. On the contrary, my hunch is that most people want the problem to go away, and they don’t care how it gets done as long as it does. 

It’s an understandable perspective. But it is not a productive frame of mind.

Ironically, it’s the town’s police department — those most closely deal with the daily frustrations the houseless community presents — who are the most compassionate. Sgt. Boe has emphasized the town’s approach is to offer a helping hand, rather than a ticket. “We don’t want to be the town where we just ‘move people along.’ We want to give them some options that include help.” 

But how do we nurture that better mindset when we seemingly have both hands tied behind our backs and significant threats at our doorstep? 

First, don’t despair. Though the task force won’t be able to “solve” the problem, progress will be made. Second, there are reasonable options to mitigate the negative impacts of houseless encampments on public spaces; we need to outline what those are and how to implement them in socially responsible and legal ways. Third, have a community discussion of just what the town’s responsibility should be. A good start would be to ask the task force to outline a proposed action plan to be reviewed at Town Meeting. It doesn’t have to have a budget or be put to a vote. The simple act of embracing a level of community responsibility, if that can be done, will help lead the community to reasonable outcomes.

Angelo Lynn

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