Walk down Main Street in Burlington almost any time of day or night, and you’ll see folks camped out on the sidewalk between the former Smokejacks and Junior’s Downtown pizzeria.
The sidewalk squatters vary in their age, attire and accessories — some strum guitars, others hold a cardboard signs, still others feed a malnourished-looking puppy or kitten. But they all share one thing: an apparent agreement that this one spot is the spot to hang out.
I first noticed this shortly after moving to Burlington last August. When I’d bike to work in the morning, there’d be one or more leather-clad transients sitting cross-legged against the brick wall facing Main Street. When I’d head home around six, they’d still be there. When I’d wander downtown to hear music at Nectar’s ... still there. The faces changed, but the location never did.
WTF? Why this one spot more than any other? I couldn’t help but wonder: Is it a pickup point for some underground hitchhiking network? Had Burlington cops established a singular no-hassle zone to get panhandlers off Church Street? Is it where day laborers go to pick up a gig?
I started asking around. Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling explained it’s a hot spot for panhandling. “Spanging,” slang for “spare changing,” is strictly forbidden on Church Street but is permitted elsewhere, Schirling explained, so long as it doesn’t stray into “aggressive” panhandling. That would include repeatedly asking someone for money, chasing after a person and the especially ill-advised PWI — panhandling while intoxicated.
Burlington cops are well aware of that Main Street location, Schirling said, and have seen activity increase over the last couple years.
OK, but why there and not somewhere else on Main Street, or any other heavily trafficked street that isn’t Church?
“Probably why they picked it is, it’s not the entrance to anything,” Schirling said, explaining that city ordinance also blocks sidewalk squatters from blocking an egress. “It’s really one of the only places in the city that’s got that kind of façade, where it’s on a main thoroughfare but it’s not the front of a business or house.”
“It’s the new sun deck,” said Young, who has worked for years with Burlington’s homeless and transient communities. “The sun is generally there all day. That’s a big draw, as is that Nectar’s is there and people can make some pretty good money there at night. And there’s the general vibe of Nectar’s — the freedom it may represent to some people.”
The previous “sun deck,” Young said, was on Bank Street between Center and Church, where indentations in the parking garage provided spots for people to hang out and soak up some rays. According to Young, that’s recently become more of a “troublesome corridor” that draws more scrutiny from business owners and police, and pushes street dwellers elsewhere.
Of course, Main isn’t the only popular transient hangout in town. Cherry Street near Rite Aid is another one, Young said, though it doesn’t have the foot traffic Main Street does.
I decided to pay a visit to Main Street myself. There I found Tina Comstock, a friendly, talkative woman seated on a black milk crate and writing in a marbled Mead notepad. Beside her was a homemade cardboard sign, written in purple marker. It read: “GREED IS A WEED THAT KILLS THE GARDEN. WE ARE HERE TO LEARN HOW TO LOVE & HELP EACH OTHER OUT. ANYTHING COUNTS. WHATEVER YOU GIVE WILL COME BACK TO YOU 10 FOLD. WITH LOVE & LIGHT.”
Comstock told me she’s a Vermont native who spent years moving around the East Coast. She said she was writing a book and some poems about her adventures. Lately, she has come here looking for change to help pay court fees associated with a child custody case.
Why here, I asked her? Why not spange someplace else, such as College, Bank, or down near the waterfront?
“There’s an energy vortex here,” Comstock said. “People are more giving, more open minded to giving. Even rich people give. They give 50 cents to make themselves feel better.”
People catch rides here, Comstock added, by holding a sign with their desired state or destination. But mostly it’s what she called “a money spot.”
“People are trying to make money because they don’t have a job and are homeless.”
However some actually find work at this spot: The restaurateurs opening Church & Main in the old Smokejacks space have hired folks right off Main Street to haul out construction debris and ready the restaurant for its opening this summer.
“If you treat them well, they look out for the place,” said David Fonte, the restaurant’s executive chef.
Sun, money and the search for an energy vortex: Isn’t that what motivates most Burlingtonians?
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