Home Columns A Message from City Hall: Sleeping in the City

A Message from City Hall: Sleeping in the City

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Many people have expressed questions and concerns about a proposed policy concerning overnight camping by people experiencing homelessness. Issues raised in social media and direct communications have ranged from safety of the general public to the lack of adequate response for those who are unhoused. As people form their opinions about this policy, it may be helpful to understand what the proposal is and why my staff and I are recommending its adoption.

Why is this being proposed?

The major contributing factor is the U.S. 9th Circuit Court decision in Martin vs. the City of Boise, which said that camping on publicly owned land by people with no other home or shelter is permitted with conditions. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case. Absent clarifying action by the city, camping will be (and currently is under the court ruling) permitted on almost all city property.

In its ruling, the 9th Circuit District Court of Appeals said governments cannot criminalize conduct that is unavoidable as a result of experiencing homelessness, such as sleeping, sitting, or lying in public spaces if there are no alternative sleeping spaces available. 

The region’s primary shelter provider, the Good Samaritan Haven, regularly faces capacity issues with insufficient beds for the number of people experiencing homelessness in our community. Citing a homeless individual for sleeping outside when there aren’t enough shelter beds would be comparable to punishing that individual for the fact that they are homeless, a consequence the court decision described as cruel and unusual. 

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What does the policy do?

The court case allows for the flexibility to set limits on which public properties and during what hours camping or sleeping can be prohibited, outlined as “high-sensitivity” areas in the proposed policy. The policy seeks to define those areas so that both individuals who are homeless and the general public can have clear expectations about the locations where such camping may occur.

This policy does not purport to be a solution for homelessness — its goals are to clearly establish expectations for staff when they encounter an encampment on city land and explain clearly what people who are emergency camping can expect from the city in response. It also aims to define what city land we do not encourage camping on, for camper and community safety. 

Does this turn our parks and other public land into public campgrounds?

The court decision and policy only apply to individuals who have no permanent housing and are only in effect when there is no adequate shelter space. Human beings have a right to sleep somewhere without fear of prosecution. People with homes cannot start camping out randomly. 

Camping by people who are unhoused has been happening in our parks and in other public spaces for years. This policy will only create clearer guidelines for all involved.

Will this lead to more crime?

Neither the court decision nor the policy change the definition of criminal behavior. Sleeping is not criminal, but many other activities are. Those will continue to be handled the same as any other crime. Residents have expressed that they feel fear and intimidation when passing some individuals who are homeless. There is no denying occasional instances of verbal harassment and other unpleasant encounters. Our records, though, do not indicate significant incidents of direct crime perpetrated by transient individuals and other residents. The policy establishes key public areas — like paths, walkways, fields, schools, etc. — sensitive and off limits to camping.

What are considered “high sensitivity areas”?

“High-sensitivity areas” are locations where the health and safety impacts of encampments have a heightened potential to degrade sensitive natural resources, critical infrastructure, or create significant obstruction to residences, businesses, emergency routes, and rights-of-ways. 

These areas may also include public facilities where the presence of encampments could disrupt city operations and/or present a health or safety concern to city staff or Montpelier residents using the facilities. They may also be areas that present significant safety concerns for those who are camping. 

The City of Montpelier designates the following as high-sensitivity areas in which emergency camping is not permitted:

  • Schools and adjoining grounds 
  • Licensed daycare facilities (including city-run day camps)
  • On the city’s multi-use paths
  • Walking/biking trails/paths in city parks
  • Jurisdictional wetlands, waters, and waterways 
  • Within 50 feet of the property boundary of any off-site residence or business, unless permitted by the owner
  • Within 50 feet of the property boundary of a playground, soccer field, baseball field, basketball court, tennis court, or golf course. If the encampment includes an individual who is a registered sex offender, this boundary extends to 2,000 feet. 
  • The city’s Water Resource Recovery Facility
  • The city’s Water Treatment Plant 
  • On cemetery plots, paths, or roads

What might prompt city intervention?

Encampments found in “high-sensitivity areas” will be subject to intervention and asked to move, given their potential degradation to critical infrastructure, their presence being an obstruction to egress, or safety risks. 

For encampments located on city-owned property that do not meet the criteria of a “high-sensitivity area,” the city manager in consultation with staff, will consider the following findings to decide if any level of intervention is appropriate:

Public health findings: 

  • Confirmed case of infectious disease(s) present at encampment;
  • Excessive animal or vermin vector hazards (e.g., rats, other vector vermin) present at encampment;
  • Presence of biological vector hazards (e.g., blood, fecal matter) present at encampment;
  • Notice of public health emergency at a site of an encampment declared by a local, state, or federal public health entity present at encampment;
  • Need for cleaning or restoration, at the encampment site, as identified by city staff.

Public safety findings: 

  • Location of encampment is on privately owned land and the city has been requested to intervene;
  • Location of encampment obstructs or impedes the right-of-way, lane of traffic, bike lane, hydrant, or ADA access; 
  • Location of encampment such that first responders (including, but not limited to, fire, police, and any health care workers) are impeded in performing their essential government functions; 
  • Pervasive criminal activity present at encampment;
  • Damage to essential infrastructure (e.g., reservoirs, bridges, public utilities, drainage and sewer systems) present at encampment;
  • Excessive amounts of waste/garbage/debris as determined by city staff present at encampment;
  • Excessive fire hazards and/or calls for service as determined by fire and/or police, including unpermitted outside fires present at encampment;
  • Presence of open electrical splices or illegal wiring present at encampment;
  • Storage of tires, gasoline, or propane tanks and unsafe storage of combustible materials or accumulation of combustible waste present at encampment.

Our community has witnessed growing issues of people experiencing homelessness in the Montpelier area. It is a pervasive issue with a variety of causes and is something that requires holistic long-term solutions. The city, however, is facing a short-term emergency, with the state’s General Assistance Hotel/Motel housing program ending in July 2021. One of the risks for people exiting the state’s General Assistance Hotel/Motel housing program is the lack of available housing — leaving them more likely to camp or sleep outdoors. The city staff does not recommend establishing a concentrated camping location due to lack of capacity, expertise, and resources. We instead recommend decriminalizing the act of public camping in this emergency situation and aim to connect people living outdoors to services and shelters. 

In general, the City of Montpelier is committed to our housing plans, which are to provide clear strategies for housing development and other avenues for individuals and families to have clean, safe, and attainable housing. This proposed Encampment Response Policy doesn’t address strategies to prevent people from experiencing homelessness, nor does it dive into the city’s housing development strategies. The provision of emergency and longer-term services needs to be handled by organizations that are experienced in this work and who have resources and training that can assist those experiencing homelessness. The state government will be instrumental addressing these issues.

Excerpts from the draft policy quoted here are as of July 19th. Some wording may change before the city council meeting on July 21st. While preparing this draft policy, city staff have or will have consulted with the Parks Commission, Cemetery Commission, Recreation Advisory Board Homelessness Task Force, the town of Hartford, Vt. (which has a similar policy in place), all city departments, and the city’s attorney. 

This is an understandably difficult conversation about people’s fears and about consideration for people who are facing challenging personal circumstances. I hope that you have found this information helpful.

Thank you for reading this article and for your interest in Montpelier city government. As always, please contact me at 802-223-9502 or wfraser@montpelier-vt.org with questions or comments. Paid for by the City of Montpelier.