Burlington is no stranger to police shootings. Four years ago a mentally ill man was killed by police officers in the New North End, and last March a mentally ill man was killed downtown in his home by police, while this August our city councilors overwhelmigly passed an ordinance to criminalize behaviors often associated with homeless people. It is not clear what, exactly has changed in those 4 years, or how this new ordinance will help our growing mental health crises. We as a community need a clear plan, increased public education, and outreach to local communities affected by this crises about how to best help those in need. As a city, we need civilian oversight of our police department to ensure that our police policies are constantly monitored for equity and consistency, we need to support further deescalation trainings for our officers, and stronger mental health services and increased funding for alcohol and mental health treatment for our homeless. By doing this we can make sure we treat our homeless neighbors with compassion, fairness, and respect as members of our community, while also recognizing the unique challenges they face.
There is no question that there are some people downtown who make this city unsafe for everyone, but a lot of folks living on the street are doing their best to survive with complex trauma and years of substance abuse with the added stressor of homelessness. There are no easy answers to this growing crises of inadequate mental health services, growing poverty and income inequality, which can make those of us who have homes and strong support networks feel self-aware of the privileges we take for granted. As Kelly Devine, BBA director, recently summed up, “Everyone should feel comfortable downtown.” Yet we must do more than make everyone comfortable – we must treat these homeless folks as our neighbors even in the face of discomfort – and we should hold our elected leaders to the same expectations – or else our language will more closely treat our homeless as if they are invaders, undeserving of our city’s typical forward-thinking, progressive policies. This sort of language will inevitably hurt everyone. What incentive do homeless folks have to be decent if we treat them as outsiders, and what incentive do wealthier folks have to treat them humanely if we are constantly being told they are so different from us, so much more violent, so much outside our community that we must create laws specifically for them?
A clear plan forward led by our homeless residents and mental health workers would be ideal for helping our homeless, especially since opinion by our politicians is so divided. Councilors Tracy and Dieng want to put more money behind treatment, councilors Wright and Knodell want to treat the symptoms of homelessness, Chief del Pozo and Mayor Weinberger want to lower the visibility of homelessness so that there are less downtown public safety concerns, while also protecting our nonviolent homeless population. We need mental health professionals and those who struggle with the affliction to lead the community around helping our neighbors, as we have seen work so well with the opioid epidemic.
As an aside, I believe that it is a noble goal to protect all residents including our homeless, but moving our vulnerable populations away from the public will allow the violence in our homeless community to be less contained and less visible. Would the man at City Hall Park who had his throat slashed survive if he was out in the woods at a homeless encampment? The death of homeless resident Amos Beede last year leads me to believe the answer would be no. All the more reason to work towards integrating our homeless residents into the larger community, so that we can keep all members of our community safe regardless of where, or how, they live.
We must remember that we are working to help people, not simply solve a problem. Homeless folks not only need more patience from us, they deserve it. While it is easy to pass judgement, the real emotional and physical struggle that our homeless neighbors suffer daily is something few of us understand, which is why it would be best if we began listening to our homeless experts – our homeless and mental health professionals who work with them – and give them voices at the table when it comes to formulating new ordinances and laws, on and off a civilian-controlled police oversight commission. By doing this we can ensure that new ordinances are written and policed equitably, that we help our homeless with treatment and compassion, and by working with more marginalized voices, we can create a stronger community for all of us.