Paul Dragon: Our unhoused neighbors — out of sites, out of minds

This commentary is by Paul Dragon, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

At the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, we advocate for a statewide approach that provides safe sites for our unhoused neighbors to camp and park until we are able to offer them emergency shelter or permanent housing.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of available shelter beds and affordable housing units, our community has experienced a dramatic rise in the number of people who are unsheltered and living outdoors or in their cars.

CVOEO employs a community outreach team that provides food and critical services to people who are unsheltered around Chittenden County. This team often journeys into isolated places, spending hours seeking out people who are dispersed in wooded areas far from public view.

Safe camping and safe parking sites, sanctioned and supported by towns and cities and assisted by nonprofits and other organizations, will allow supportive staff like ours to provide a rudimentary care system where there is currently no system at all.

If there were designated camping and parking sites with garbage disposal, needle dispensaries and latrines, CVOEO and other organizations could provide coordinated social services like food access, assistance with benefits and housing, emergency services, and basic medical care, while the cities and towns provide a basic level of property management and waste removal.

Today, our unhoused community members are constantly moved from one site to another. Some are traumatized from years of homelessness, many have medical conditions, and others have co-occurring mental health and substance use conditions. The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness are thankful for services; they are nonviolent, seeking community and safety, and are just trying to survive.

At times CVOEO’s community outreach team is asked to assist people in moving their camp, either by cities, towns, businesses, or the people themselves. We assist in rare instances and only when it is voluntary.

We move some people because they feel unsafe in their current location or with their current company. Others want to be closer to food or medical care, and we always help people move if they are transitioning into an emergency shelter or an apartment. Many of the people we assist have mobility issues and we help them move so they don’t have to struggle to carry their belongings from one place to the next.

Moving our unhoused neighbors proves challenging for CVOEO’s staff because there are few, if any, legal places to bring people who are living outdoors with little or no money. In doing this, we are always careful to let them know where they absolutely cannot park or camp. This essentially means that they need to occupy places that are out of sight and out of our collective mind.

This is a horrible situation for us as an organization, a humiliating one for the people we are serving, and ultimately an intolerable one for us as a society.

We recently had a number of people staying on our tiny lawn in front of Feeding Chittenden in Burlington and we received complaints from neighbors, and also from many of the hundreds of people who access our food market and community resource center. We are sympathetic to businesses, neighbors and communities who wrestle with a large number of people who are living outside. At the same time, we understand that individuals who are unhoused experience all of the stress and anxiety that come with living outside, often in extreme weather.

This is a complex and very difficult societal issue that is increasing and becoming ever more public. Until we have adequate shelter and permanent housing, we will need to find alternate solutions like safe camping and parking, community lockers for people to store their belongings, safe injection sites, and increased medical and social service outreach.

There will also be many challenges to safe camping and parking, including regulating the numbers and the locations, and the fact that some people will choose not to stay in safe sites. However, these challenges cannot prevent us from acting.

Out of sight, out of mind is not realistic, nor is it a public policy that any of us want or deserve.