By Guy Page
Mayor Miro Weinberger’s plan to open another winter warming shelter for Burlington’s exploding homeless population has gotten a cold reception from the Burlington business community.
Homelessness is reportedly up 175%, with overdoses (fatal and non-fatal) this year totaling more than 350. Burlington police say that figure could reach 500 by year’s end, by far the most of any calendar year.
In the last two weeks, the Queen City’s festering homelessness and drug abuse problem has become a major statewide political issue. The same day Weinberger announced he would not seek a fifth term as mayor and broadly hinted at a run for statewide office – likely governor – Seven Days weekly newspaper publisher and Burlington resident Paula Routly bluntly acknowledged the city’s deteriorating quality of life. She asked: what, if anything, can be done to fix it?
Since then, both Weinberger and gubernatorial incumbent Phil Scott and Weinberger have since (in effect) responded: ‘‘What we’re already doing, but more of it.’
When asked by VDC to answer Routly’s question at a press conference Wednesday, Scott said the state must “amplify” existing programs with more money and more staff – both in short supply, he noted. Vermont’s substance abuse prevention, treatment, recovery and law enforcement programs were working until “fentanyl changed the game,” but he insists that “it’s the right approach.”
For his part, Weinberger yesterday announced plans for more homeless sheltering: specifically, a new state-funded, winter-only warming shelter in the former VFW near the intersection of Main St. and South Winooski Avenue – just a stone’s throw from the Chittenden County Courthouse, where a $100,000 parking lot fence will be built to keep out drug users.
Weinberger’s plan has already met resistance from the Burlington Business Association, whose executive director said rampant drug use occurs at warming shelter locations.
The mayor will go public Tuesday with further plans to make progress on the intertwined issues.
“I will host a virtual briefing on numerous initiatives related to homelessness this coming Tuesday, October 10. Despite the City’s dramatically expanded shelter capacity and staff commitment, this challenge has continued to grow this summer – especially after the state’s decision to precipitously end the emergency hotel program in June without a plan for winding the program down,” Weinberger said in an Oct. 5 statement. “The City’s efforts to address homelessness have continued to expand.”
“At the City Council meeting on Tuesday night, the Burlington Police Department, Burlington Fire Department and I will be providing an update on the City’s drug trafficking enforcement efforts as well as our continued efforts to expand and improve drug treatment opportunities,” he said.
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