Housing, dignity, respect, and a place at the table

Housing, dignity, respect, and a place at the table

Organizers hope a rally in Brattleboro becomes a first step toward giving unhoused people agency, respect, and a role in helping address the local consequences of a national trend

BRATTLEBORO — In the intensifying conversation about homelessness in town, the question of whether dislocated and unhoused people can have a voice and a seat at the table has often been raised but rarely enacted.

On Monday, July 22, that voice got louder and the message became more visible with a full-throated demand for inclusion in the discussion about homelessness from the people with the least amount of agency: those without homes.

A small group of homeless individuals - and a larger group of their community supporters and allies - joined in “The Homelessness Revolution,” a rally at Plaza Park that called on participants, particularly those experiencing homelessness, to hold signs in support of demands for “housing, dignity and respect, and a primary role in the political process.”

The rally, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Amtrak passenger train, took place in pouring rain, and many of the signs that had been created for the event went unused.

Several people at the event commented that those who are homeless don't mind a little warm rain in the summer.

Organizer hopes to 'engage the community in more talk'

A focal point for the protest was the arrest for trespassing of James Douglas, a homeless person and community organizer who spearheaded the rally with other homeless individuals with local writer Matthew Vernon Whalan.

In an interview published in The Commons [“Policing homeless life and the need to resist,” Voices, July 17], Douglas said that sometime around midnight on July 11 he was lying on a bench in Plaza Park when a police officer asked him to leave.

Located across Canal Street from the Brattleboro Food Co-op and next door to the Holstein Association U.S.A. building, the park is often used in summer months by people who do not have a place to sleep.

Douglas said that he refused to follow the order and was arrested, dragged off the bench, and handcuffed, experiencing a bruise to his head in the process.

After his arrest in that park on July 11, Douglas was held in jail for 12 hours on $500 bail, then released at his arraignment on personal recognizance.

Calls to the Brattleboro Police Department seeking response to Douglas's accounts were not returned by press time.

A close and collegial relationship

The arrest has sparked some controversy.

Brattleboro's overnight shelter is closed in the summer months, and Groundworks Collaborative, a nonprofit social-services agency, provides tents to its clients when the weather is warmer.

Typically, the police department and Groundworks have worked together to help relocate people without housing who camp outside during warmer months, if they receive complaints.

According to earlier interviews with both Joshua Davis, Groundworks' executive director, and Captain Mark Carignan, the collaboration between the police and Groundworks has been close and collegial.

In April, Carignan said that, to his knowledge, there had been no arrests for simple trespassing over the past two years.

On the day of the protest, Davis reaffirmed that the relationship was working, and said he could not comment on the specific instance of Douglas's case, since he lacked information.

A matter of civil liberties?

In interviews and in Facebook posts, Douglas cited the Eighth Amendment, which guards against “cruel and unusual punishment,” as the basis for a potential legal defense against his arrest.

In April, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that arresting people for sleeping outside is unconstitutional, based on the Eighth amendment, if a municipality does not provide housing options for people without homes. Within the five western states under its jurisdiction, including California, Oregon, and Washington, this new ruling has invalidated municipal ordinances against camping outside in public spaces unless shelter was available.

A similar case based on an arrest for trespassing in a public park in Burlington was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was argued in the 2nd Circuit Court, which oversees New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

According to the ACLU website, the case, settled on July 16, challenged a Burlington “No Trespass” ordinance that barred individuals from visiting City Hall Park if they had committed prior offenses there.

“Under the terms of the settlement agreement,” the press release said, “Burlington agreed to policy changes that guarantee an individual's right to exercise constitutionally protected activities on City properties. In addition, the City agreed to work with the ACLU of Vermont and other stakeholders to draft an ordinance governing no-trespass orders.”

The city also agreed to pay plaintiff Jason Ploof and his counsel $13,500.

“This settlement recognizes that public parks belong to everyone,” said ACLU of Vermont Staff Attorney Jay Diaz in the press release. “Every individual has a fundamental right to access public space - especially when engaged in constitutionally protected activities - and the settlement sends a clear message that Burlington and other localities cannot use blanket no-trespass ordinances to stifle people's freedom of movement and expression without due process of law.”

Douglas said that he had contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, but had not yet heard back from the civil-rights advocacy organization.

Brattleboro's town ordinance outlaws camping in public spaces unless authorized by the director of recreation and parks or the town manager.

If Douglas's case draws the ACLU's attention, it will join a number of similar cases within various federal jurisdictions.

Housing, dignity, and respect

The challenges posed to the town by the related but separate issues of addiction and homelessness have been a major topic of discussion for more than two years, and the town's dialogue on these topics has only intensified as the weather has grown warmer this summer.

At Monday's rally, the focus was on dignity and respect, and on the central role that housing plays in addressing any other issue.

The Selectboard recently voted to contribute $100,000 from the town's coffers to support Groundworks in developing additional overnight shelters. The board has also given the go-ahead to a new project designed to provide work opportunities for dislocated individuals [“Can a new program put cash in the pockets of those who need it most?” News, July 17].

Asked what he thought might help resolve the challenge of homelessness here, Douglas said that the main thing is that people need someplace to go.

“We've got to get out from the community the way that we are,” he said. “It's ruining this community, and it's only getting worse. It's got to stop. I understand that, and I completely validate the concerns of the community, here on that, completely.”

“I think that this has been and is a very complex problem,” said Davis of Groundworks, “and also a really simple discussion - it's about getting people back into housing. We are making progress and we are compassionate. At the same time, we have people camping out.”

Davis talked about the inadequacy of resources to address all of the needs that the town faces, and also of how the town is facing a nationwide problem.

Two Selectboard members, Daniel Quipp and Brandie Starr both held signs on the rainy summer evening.

Asked for comment, Starr, the board chair, said that she was there only to help support giving voice to the homeless.

For Douglas, the event was a first step in a longer process.

“I hope to become visible enough to engage the community in more talk,” Douglas said before the protest. “I think there needs to be more conversation about what's happening, because otherwise there won't be any solutions to come forward.”

Douglas said on Tuesday night that despite the turnout and visibility of the rally, no civic leaders have yet reached out to address the group's demand for a “public meeting with the leaders in the community to voice our concerns, needs, and desires,” according to a description of the rally posted as a Facebook event.

“We're not asking Brattleboro for something for nothing,” he said. “We don't want something for nothing. We want respect and dignity. That's what we're out here for. We want to be dignified. We want to be seen as human beings and treated that way.”

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