Burlington's Homeless: 'The Community Is Not Showing Up To Help'

Oct 17, 2017

This week the city of Burlington is planning to close a homeless encampment in the city's south end. We spoke to some members of the homeless community to get a sense of what they think of the decision.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger says city staff have visited the encampment to speak with the people living there, and to help them find options for housing. Burlington police say the decision to clear out the encampment is due to allegations of violence and drug use.

Rheda Chambers

On a recent sunny morning, we found Rheda Chambers playing her guitar in Burlington's City Hall Park.

"I remember when I was homeless, when I was 18, when I used to stay at the way station, we looked out for each other, we took care of each other, and no stabbings." she sings.

Rheda Chambers, 51, is homeless and living in Burlington. She says she's tired of living outside, but hasn't been able to get back into housing.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

To hear Chambers tell it, there's been a disturbing change within the city's homeless community.

"I've seen too many people get in trouble with the police," she says. "And cause trouble with them, and I'd rather get along with them."

Chambers says she can't work due to ongoing struggles with depression and in the past she's lost housing after letting other homeless people stay with her. But she's tired of living outside.

"It's been four years that I've been homeless on my birthday and I really just want to break that cycle. Because, like I don't want to be homeless. I don't want to be out here," she explains. "It's too much. I'm 51 years old now. I've got to do something."

Arthur Medieros

Arthur Medieros spends most of his days at the corner of Church Street and Main Street, taking whatever passersby give him: food, money, cigarettes.

He says he came to Burlington from Rutland after his girlfriend kicked him out. 

"I said, If I'm going to be homeless, I'm going to be homeless in Burlington, because it's the best opportunity," says Medieros. "You know if you starve up here it's your own fault. I mean, you can eat three times a day in Burlington."

Arthur Medieros says if he's going to be homeless, it's going to be in Burlington. "If you starve up here it's your own fault. I mean, you can eat three times a day in Burlington."
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

Medieros says he stayed in an encampment in Burlington when he first arrived after living in Rutland. Now he sleeps in the park, though he's tried to find housing.

"When I got here, I went to Safe Harbor and I filled out the paperwork and then it didn't pan out, but my biggest problem is that I like to drink," he says. "And I drink from the time I open my eyes until the time I close them if I've got money in my pocket. And that's my biggest problem."

With winter coming, Medieros says he's trying to work out what he's going to do. One option is the city's low-barrier shelter which opens on Nov. 1.

"I'm going to have to try to get off the streets one way or another. I've lived outdoors in the winter time and that's no picnic," Medieros says. "If I really wanted to stay drinking I could wait until Nov. 1 when they open up the wet shelter. But that' not what I want. I don't want to live in the wet shelter. If I sober up and get my head together, I could probably go out and get a job and be productive. That's what I want."

"People categorize us as we don't want to do nothing. But sometimes you're in a slump and you're down and out, you just stay where you're at because you don't know what else to do other than just survive." - Arthur Medieros

Medieros says he's been arrested many times, but he wants people to know that most people who are homeless do want to stay out of trouble.

"People categorize us as we don't want to do nothing," he says. "But sometimes you're in a slump and you're down and out, you just stay where you're at because you don't know what else to do other than just survive. It's all about survival out here. The weak don't survive out here, man."

Stephen Marshall & Ray Eiker

In a social service agency office, Chittenden County Homeless Coalition member Stephen Marshall says the violence that sometimes happens on Church Street and City Hall Park is perpetrated by a small number of people and it makes him angry.

"Those people do not represent the homeless," Marshall said. "Those people create a negative stereotype of the homeless that is extremely destructive to us. We're really really angry that those people are representing us in the community. The vast majority want to be participants in the community, but the community is not showing up to give them the help they need."

Marshall isn't homeless anymore, but he still identifies as a member of the homeless community.

Seated with Marshall at the table is 33-year-old chainmail artist, Ray Eiker. Like Medieros, Eiker was also left homeless after a relationship ended.

"I am taking a section of chain and attaching it to the ends of wallet attachment, so as to make a wallet chain," he explains while working with the metal material.

Marshall says those links are a good metaphor for what happens when someone becomes homeless. 

"Most people who are homeless, they aspire to being members of the community by being employed, and being housed, but you have [a] four-link-chain: transportation, communication, housing and job, social fabric," says Marshall. "You need to have all those things. If one of them break, your chain is falling apart - if any one of them breaks."

Ray Eiker, 33, plans to leave Burlington soon for a place where he can sell his art without a vendor's permit. He says he's been homeless off and on for 14 years.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

Eiker says from what he's seen, struggles with mental health drive most of the homelessness. 

"I see so many ... that have fallen into a deep depression that it would take a lot of serious psychiatric help to get them off of," Eiker explains. "The negative drugs that they are using [give them] a more positive outlook. Because that's the biggest problem. Once you get on the streets, once you become homeless, you feel like everything has fallen apart, and you fall into such a deep valley of depression, it's nearly impossible to climb out."

Ray Eiker says violence needs to be addressed, but closing camps isn't the answer.

"Breaking up an encampment is like breaking up a family," he says. "It's like taking mom and putting her over on the west coast, taking dad and putting him in Europe, and taking the kids and putting them in South America.

"We can't see each other and it takes us a lot longer to be able to regroup. We lose out on the small amount of structure that we are able to obtain. That level of structure is what helps the few of us who are trying to get back off the streets."

"Once you get on the streets, once you become homeless, you feel like everything has fallen apart, and you fall into such a deep valley of depression, it's nearly impossible to climb out. " - Ray Eiker

He says he doesn't like to stay in shelters: "Because of mental issues, [I] don't fit well in the crowded, smelly paranoid, stress-inducing environment that a shelter becomes."

Marshall questions how closing camps helps. 

"Those people are going to go somewhere and they're still going to be what they were before. They're just going to be somewhere else," Marshall says. "The difficulty here is that when you're homeless you don't have resources. You can't have property protections, but you're still a human being and you still need protection."

Stephen Marshall, 62, is an advocate for the homeless community. "The vast majority [of homeless people] want to be participants in the community, but the community is not showing up to give them the help they need."

Steven Marshall says most homeless people are trying to get housing, but the community needs to help people where they are. And he says that society must do more to help the most vulnerable.

"Anyone who's listening can have something bad happen and find themselves homeless. Do you want to live in a community where if that happens to you there will be no help?" he asked. "We want to live in a community where we take care of each other, we hold ourselves up when we have problems."