Judge welcomes former Sears Lane campers to continue suit against city of Burlington

The Sears Lane encampment in Burlington in October 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — A superior court judge opened the door Thursday for two residents of the dismantled Sears Lane encampment to continue their lawsuit against the city for clearing out a lot where roughly two dozen people sheltered last fall.

While Judge Samuel Hoar of Chittenden Superior Court dismissed the initial complaint campers Gray Barreda and Alexus Grundy filed in October 2021, he invited the duo in a Thursday hearing to amend that complaint, giving them a window to receive compensation for any unjust damages the city might have inflicted on them.

The campers — who were representing themselves — had previously asked the court to stop officials from breaking up the encampment. But after the city-owned parcel was cleared out in an early-morning push late last year, that request was moot, Hoar said.

“What you’re really looking for now is either, ‘Undo what you’ve already done,’ or ‘Compensate us for what you’ve already done wrongfully,'” Hoar told the campers. “But those claims are not part of this case right now.”

Hoar suggested that the campers change the endeavor of their lawsuit — from trying to prevent the camp’s closure to seeking damages because the camp was closed — and gave them until April 10 to do so.

In shifting their focus, Hoar also recommended that the campers enlist the help of a lawyer to “ghostwrite” the amended complaint for them, as he presumed they had in one of their past motions.

“You folks have done a wonderful job. I want to commend you for the work you have done as self-represented litigants,” Hoar told the camps. “But I think everybody would benefit if whoever was ghostwriting for you before could be roped into doing it again.”

Alexus Grundy, left, and Gray Barreda, right, speak after appearing in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington in October 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After the hearing, Barreda told VTDigger that three lawyers with a background in activism had offered advice to the camps: Sandy Baird, Barry Kade and City Councilor-elect Gene Bergman, a Progressive who won the uncontested race to represent Ward 2 last week.

The closure of Sears Lane incensed Progressives such as Bergman, inspiring the six city councilors from that party to introduce resolutions aimed at undoing the camp’s removal and rebuking Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger. Of those resolutions, one was amended into a more innocuous version that passed the entire council, while the other was shot down for procedural reasons.

Councilors passed a bipartisan resolution last month that assigned one-time federal dollars to homelessness prevention programs, including an effort next winter to create “pods” for those without housing. Prior to Thursday’s hearing, Barreda told VTDigger he felt affirmed by the passage of those proposals.

Weinberger billed the proposals as fulfilling part of his “plan to end homelessness,” and has maintained that the removal of Sears Lane was to protect camps from the unsafe living conditions there.

But the removal of camps and their belongings from the South End lot has not prevented the former residents from returning to sleep there occasionally, Grundy said at Thursday’s hearing.

“I’ve slept on that property,” Grundy told Hoar. “No, I don’t reside there like I used to but you guys kind of bulldozed my house.”

“I’m not homeless, I’m houseless. There’s a difference,” she said. “That’s still my home, that’s always going to be my home.”

Hoar responded to Grundy with a warm tone: “Well, they say home is where the heart is. And if that’s where your heart is, then that’s — at least in that sense — home.”

“The law sometimes is cold and hard. I hope that the court isn’t,” Hoar told the campers. “No one takes pleasure in seeing people homeless or causing people to be homeless.”

“The court is obligated to apply the law as it finds it on the facts as they’re presented,” he said. “Sometimes that leads to results that make all of us a bit uncomfortable, but that’s what the law requires.”

In an interview with VTDigger, City Attorney Dan Richardson said Hoar’s words did not go so far as to opine on whether the campers had a right to the property, and called the suggestion that campers amend their motion Hoar’s bid to give them a “full and fair opportunity.”

“The Vermont judiciary is really good at working with self-represented litigants,” Richardson said. “(Hoar) left that door open so that, if they are able to articulate such a claim, it won’t be a case of justice denied on technical grounds.”

The city does not intend to reopen the Sears Lane encampment, Richardson said, though it is investing in the “pods” councilors paid for the last month. Those pods will be placed in a parking lot along Elmwood Avenue near the federal courthouse, he said.

In post-hearing remarks to VTDigger, Barreda said he appreciated Hoar’s gesture, and that the duo would rely on lawyers to help amend their legal argument.

“We’re really grateful for the court (for) being open, and keeping this conversation open,” Barreda said.

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