-by Paul Dragon, CVOEO Executive Director
The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity has operated the Community Resource Center for people experiencing homelessness in Burlington for the past six months, as well as last year through the winter. I am proud of the appreciation we have received from many people, including businesses and community members in downtown Burlington. I value the genuine support that the business community and others have shown for people who are experiencing homelessness and I also know that much of the appreciation is because people are no longer gathering in public places and outside of businesses throughout the city.
It is true that the Community Resource Center has played an important role in gathering people together, but we didn’t do it for the economy or the tourists; we did it for the people left out of the economy who are too often overlooked and undervalued. After all, we are an anti-poverty organization whose mission is committed to advancing social, economic, racial and environmental justice.
It is not that we aren’t interested in the economy or the wider community; quite the opposite. We employ well over 200 people and we have a thriving micro-business development program that has launched dozens of new businesses and created hundreds of jobs. Each year, we weatherize hundreds of apartments and homes, saving lower-income families money that they spend instead at area businesses and on other critical expenses. We prepared over 1,400 tax returns this past year, providing valuable economic support to individuals, families and the community. Our Head Start program prepares children to be good citizens, interested in their community and the environment through an evidence-based education program, and our New American program helps people coming to this country become part of the mainstream economy through financial education and support.
CVOEO is not only a Community Action Agency; it is part of the economic engine in Chittenden County and beyond. The city of Burlington is in the process of procuring a new site for the Community Resource Center and CVOEO is currently planning to operate and provide services at the site. Services include meals throughout the day, access to resources and computers, as well as assistance with housing and employment. The most important service, however, is access to a community and human connection. Our team at the Community Resource Center has been a part of that thriving community where gratitude, laughter and mutual support are predominant in spite of the challenging conditions in which people are living.
It is understandable and appropriate for businesses and neighbors to question the development of a new Community Resource Center. I do wonder if the same level of scrutiny is extended to other gathering places, like bars, nightclubs, private clubs and even restaurants where drinking, which can result in violence and drunk driving, can occur. Do we equally consider the location of student housing, fraternities and sororities where parties, noise and exclusivity often occur?
Would we level the same concern toward the establishment of a religious institution where so many may gather to divide our broader community in support of laws and restrictions on our LGBTQ community and others who aren’t like them? When considering the Community Resource Center and other places of gathering, we should ask ourselves if we are creating a double standard.
The city’s lease ran out on the last day of April at the current Community Resource Center. Our team packed up and cleaned the space and is preparing to open a temporary site at CVOEO’s Feeding Chittenden location. As we gathered to leave, saying goodbye and taking pictures, one city official remarked how clean the place was and wondered how, after all those months with so many people, at times up to 100 people a day, there was no discernible damage. I wonder if a visit to any dormitory, after one semester, at one of our elite colleges would yield a similar observation. So perhaps the problem is not with people who are experiencing homelessness, but with us.