June 21, 2023

Contact: Stephanie Gomory, Communications Director[email protected]802-223-6304 x111

MONTPELIER, Vt. – The ACLU of Vermont sent an open letter to Vermont’s municipal leaders and agencies today, urging respect for constitutional rights at a time when the number of unhoused people and families in Vermont communities is increasing rapidly. The ACLU has filed numerous legal actions to vindicate the rights of low-income and unsheltered Vermonters in recent years. 

The ACLU’s letter notes that Governor Scott and the Vermont legislature chose to end the state’s emergency housing program without providing sufficient alternatives. That policy choice will compound the stress on localities and service providers—who are already strained beyond capacity—to meet existing needs. While calling on cities and towns to respect the constitutional rights of all residents, the ACLU is also urging all Vermonters to demand solutions—and adequate funding—from Governor Scott and state legislators.

ACLU of Vermont Legal Director Lia Ernst: “We want to support and encourage local leaders to take the legal rights of unhoused community members very seriously, and we are hopeful that they will. We also join them in calling on Governor Scott and state legislators to respond to this humanitarian crisis with greater urgency, leadership, and compassion.”

The ACLU’s letter highlights several areas of concern:

  • Sheltering on Public Land. “Ordinances and policies that punish individuals for sleeping in public when they have nowhere else to go violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment…We urge municipalities across Vermont to take a humane and flexible approach to ordinance enforcement and refrain from relocating community members sheltering on public lands unless absolutely necessary…Likewise, seizing and destroying personal property at sheltering sites without due process violates the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure and the guarantee of due process. Municipalities should make every effort to avoid seizing individuals’ personal property, which includes necessities of life.”
  • Access to Public Space: “While cities and towns may enforce constitutionally valid laws and ordinances regarding the use of public property, in recent years we have seen repeated examples of people being no-trespassed from public property in violation of their constitutional rights. But public property is just that—public. Municipalities may not exclude people from public property without providing adequate procedural protections. This means, at a minimum, giving notice of the reason for the trespass notice and a meaningful opportunity to contest it before enforcement.”
  • Criminalization of Poverty: “We further urge municipalities to exercise discretion when enforcing so-called ‘quality of life’ issues. Prosecution of unsheltered people for acts that are offenses solely because they are done in public—such as public urination or public drunkenness—effectively criminalizes the status of not having access to a private space. Such prosecutions create severe collateral consequences for the individuals and only exacerbate the root causes of poverty and homelessness. We have opposed proposals to target low-level offenses with enhanced enforcement and/or criminal penalties, and we will continue to do so.” 

The ACLU has filed several lawsuits in recent years addressing many of these issues. For example, in December 2019, the ACLU settled a lawsuit against the City of Burlington over the City’s policy of confiscating and destroying the property of unsheltered residents in violation of their constitutional rights. Under the terms of the settlement, Burlington agreed to several policy changes to provide greater due process protections. 

Vermont may soon have the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country after experiencing an estimated 18.5 percent increase in homelessness—36 percent among families with children—in just the past year. Approximately 80 percent of all unhoused people in Vermont, including up to 600 children, could be without shelter by August.

ACLU of Vermont Executive Director James Lyall: “In a state that prides itself on compassion, mutual support, and respect for our neighbors, Vermont residents are right to demand that their governor and their legislators respond to a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude with real solutions. The state should not be passing the costs and liabilities of failed housing policies onto local municipalities when it unquestionably has the resources to resolve this crisis, and an urgent responsibility to act.”

The ACLU is also distributing updated “Know Your Rights” materials to help community members assert their own rights and the rights of their neighbors.

The ACLU’s letter to Vermont municipal leaders and agencies is available here.