Panic on Church Street

The Church Street Marketplace (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

The good merchants of Burlington’s Church Street are up in arms over an alleged plague of loitering and related bad behavior. Or, as several dozen of them described their charming streetscape in a letter to Chittenden County state senators, “public intoxication, open drug use, public urination and defecation, public sex acts, aggressive and harassing behavior, commandeering and blocking public thoroughfares, and sleeping or camping in both private and public spaces.”

Ick. Well, I haven’t been on Church Street since the pandemic hit, but that sounds more like my old stomping grounds in Detroit (pictured above) than the crown jewel of Vermont downtowns.

Anyway, they are asking for tougher state laws on various abuses of the common. And their lament drew a quick and caustic response from the progressive Twitterverse. “Bicycles & Books” wrote, “Throwing more cops at a problem is never the solution.” Josh Lisenby added, “Merchants want to lock up the poor.” Mairead Catherine suggested a boycott of the merchants.

And this from Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George:

But actually, I feel quite a bit of sympathy for the merchants. They’re suffering from two consecutive seasons, with no end in sight, of greatly reduced foot traffic on the Marketplace. If the pandemic continues much longer, which it seems certain to do, it’s very likely that one-third or more of those merchants will be out of business within months. A lot of people would suffer, a lot of workers would lose jobs, and Church Street would be in danger of losing the critical mass of merchants it needs to remain vibrant.

The merchants can’t do anything about Covid-19, so they’re looking for anything else that might help. But no, making criminals of the least among us is not the answer.

While the merchants want something more than misdemeanor tickets, they don’t suggest an alternative. Tougher laws — but how? Lock ’em up? Buy ’em one-way bus tickets to Rutland?

Soylent Green factories?

Surely I exaggerate, but this is a problem faced by every community large enough to have a visible homeless population. You can’t just wish them away. The bus-ticket idea has been tried in many American cities, and it devolves into a big expensive shell game — the homeless are shunted around with no follow-up and no effort to do anything beyond “out of sight, out of mind.”

Also, as with the briefly-floated idea of primary seat-belt enforcement, the season of #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t seem like a great time to be giving police another tool of discretionary enforcement. Laws against loitering and other behavioral offenses have an unfortunate history of being selectively used against people of color, the disabled, the mentally ill and other at-risk people.

Legislation would be, at best, a Band-Aid on a social illness, and it would further victimize our most vulnerable. Approaching the Legislature is the wrong idea a the wrong time. City Council and the Mayor are the best equipped to address the situation.

Mark Bouchette, co-owner of the Homeport store, told VTDIgger that the merchants feel abandoned by city government. “Our city is not especially concerned,” he said. “It’s not a high priority. They’re not crazy about the police right now, either, so we’ve sort of lost that avenue to sort of step up patrols.”

If that’s true, it’s a City Hall problem. The health of Church Street is in danger, and the Marketplace is the real heart of Burlington city life. It’s already taken a hit from the coronavirus, and the failure of the City Place redevelopment.

THe city has cut the police budget in response to the BLM movement. If it hasn’t done so already, it should invest the savings into non-police assistance efforts aimed at Church Street and other problem areas. Social workers, mental health workers, substance use assistance, whatever it takes.

I’m sure they don’t need me to suggest this approach, and maybe some things are underway. But there’s clearly a breakdown of trust between City Hall and Church Street, and more needs to be done. And it’s a city issue, not a Statehouse issue.

One final note. The VTDigger story was written by business reporter Anne Wallace Allen. She interviewed multiple merchants for her story, but no one from a service agency or assistance organization, much less actual homeless people. The story covers the business angle and the letter to the Legislature, but it is far from a complete examination of the problem.

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