The Center and the Margins

In BCL, there is learning that is planned, and there is learning that appears. When the BCL faculty began to plan the Fall semester, it became clear that a natural through-line was emerging. Threading through a wide variety of our experiences was the dynamic pull between the center and the margins. We began to see it everywhere: in the physical geography of Burlington, in the city’s social history, present, in government policies, and in the stories shared by community partners. 

Embedded in this theme are an infinite number of other questions, each equally expansive… 

Why are the physical margins associated with those who are marginalized? 
What forces maintain the “center?” 
Who is Burlington for? 
How has the design of our city influenced these dynamics? 
Who belongs to a place? 
Who does a place belong to? 

Abenaki Educator, Judy Dow, leads us on a walk through the Old North End, sharing stories of oppression, adaptation, and survival.
Students were enthralled by Judy’s stories about life one hundred years ago — eugenics, prohibition, and underground tunnels.
Back at Battery Park, students began their own exploration of land acknowledgement. 

My thinking on Burlington has changed because I thought of Burlington before as a perfect place to live but there are forgotten community members.


Judy Dow was kind of right. The literal margins are where oppressed people live. I also know it’s still more complex than that. I definitely appreciate my city more, and I love this. 


Some of the stuff that we talked about is really new to me. Nobody ever taught me about this, not even in school. I used to think that there weren’t any problems about housing in Vermont until we talked about it.


During the time when the BCL group was based in the South End, we took advantage of our location to learn more about a complex issue–homelessness. Students walked the perimeter of the Sears Lane homeless encampment, and reflected on their observations. 

Afterwards, we met with Lacey Smith, a Social Worker embedded with the Burlington Police Department, and Marcella Gange, who works for Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office [CEDO]. Together, they helped us understand the history and context of Sears Lane, and opened up questions about policy, responsibility, and the complex interdependence of systems (e.g., housing, mental health, public health, etc.). It was a remarkably rich series of conversations. Students were encouraged to dig deep, and meet our partners in the rich complex territory in which they work every day. 

Lacey Smith explains the history of the encampment, and why the city has a “housing first” policy.
After sharing that the city’s goal is to make homelessness “rare and brief,” Marcella Gange invited questions about the balance between addressing root causes and the need to provide support services. 

After seeing Sears Lane, I got more insight to what homelessness looks like in Burlington and how there are small communities of people without housing. I also now understand the extent of the housing shortage due to income disparities, COVID, and construction costs — all of which make housing harder to find and afford and are causing homelessness to go up in Burlington.


It’s interesting to see how the homeless people were literally pushed to the edge of the city. I don’t understand why the city doesn’t try to help these people instead of just chasing them away.


I now understand that homelessness is a very complex system that is often hard to escape from when it’s forced upon a person. I’ve always kind of seen how people turn their head to not make eye contact when walking by a person on Church St, but I wasn’t aware of all of the other disrespect these people have to deal with. The neighbors of the Sears Lane encampment want nothing to do with the homeless people, and they are against the city helping out these people. I am now more aware of the different services and facilities provided for those who are homeless.


I know that Homelessness has multiple causes, including mental health, drug/alcohol use, and lack of money. You can get a job to get more money, but many jobs do not pay enough to get you a house. It is impossible to eliminate homelessnes you can only reduce it.


I’ve definitely learned more about the city that I call home. I think our systems are trying as hard as they can but not all are succeeding as they intended.  


Back at the Old North End Community Center, we hosted David Harris, a man who Lacey has worked with for years. “I don’t stop providing support simply because someone has leveled up in life,” Lacey said.

David’s story was compelling, heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive. It was humbling to spend 90 minutes with him. He experienced early trauma, incarceration, addiction, homelessness…but now, he has his life back, and he has a young son. “I had to get rid of that big weight, so I took a stand,” David said. “I had to be there for him, and for myself.” 

“People need to hear my story,” he recently wrote, “so that they can understand — understand that people can change. My story makes me a miracle and a believer! Hope, inspirational, encouraging and alive. These are the things that I’m full of now. These are the things I enjoy today.” 

David shares hard-won wisdom with Anna 

I never used to think about the homelessness problem in Burlington. I never knew how the Champlain Inn worked and how at other places residents need to be sober. It seems that the city of Burlington is trying as hard as they can. But now I’m thinking about more ways people could be helped, for instance with a better rehab system, because the waiting lists are extremely long and sometimes the person needs help immediately. Also, it must be hard for these people to get good paying jobs to even consider moving into a place where you pay rent. 

J. Finn

A new insight I have is that people who are homeless don’t get the attention they should be getting. When I say this, I’m talkin about how the government doesn’t actually interview the people who need the help. Instead, they ask the homeowners…instead of going out in the streets and asking the homeless people themselves.


I now understand that many people who are homeless are homeless due to circumstances they were put through in their younger years. The situations they persevered through drove them down a path that they struggled to get off of,  due to the breakdown of systems in place to help them.


I’m aware that I’ve always had an implicit bias when it comes to people who are homeless — thinking that they are dangerous. I walk quickly by them, look at my feet, keep going. After hearing David’s story, I learned the most basic thing: that anyone is just as human as the next. I don’t really know how to process or write my thoughts, but I am sort of just in awe. His story was incredible.

Reflecting on David’s story with Josh Meyer and Ferene Paris-Meyer, BCL7’s artists-in-residence.

While our study of the housing system began at the literal margins, we came to understand that the issues were far more complex, and more pervasive. To deepen our understanding of Burlington’s housing crisis, we collaborated with four local professionals, each of whom brought specific dilemmas or case-studies for us to grapple with together. 

Todd Rawlings, a housing expert from CEDO, brought a dilemma about the City’s approach to those at the margins. Corrine Yonce, a fair housing advocate from CVOEO, brought a case study about urban planning, green space, and NIMBYism from South Burlington. Eric Farrell, a private developer, invited students to explore–and question–the barriers to building housing in Burlington. And Cindy Reid, from Cathedral Square, brought the land survey for their newest development in the Champlain Islands. As soon as the survey was unfurled, questions emerged about urban design, permitting, inclusion and equity.

Cindy Reid illustrates how Cathedral Square’s new development will fit into the surrounding town.
Todd Rawlings invites students to explore the implications of data.
Eric Farrell takes questions about why Burlington lacks the housing it desperately needs
Corrine Yonce tells the story of a development in South Burlington whose issues feel close to home.

One of the things we have talked about over the past weeks was how do we deal with and avoid homelessness, making it as limited as possible. With Todd Rawlings, from CEDO, we talked about addressing the issue from the front end– trying to find front end solutions so people don’t actually become homeless, instead of trying to fix things once there are already problems. In David’s case, he utilized back-end solutions because there wasn’t a system in place to help him as a teen. 


It’s not that finding a house is the issue, it’s finding affordable housing. People who can work at home move into Vermont and bring in large salaries, while those who live in Burlington don’t necessarily get those large salaries to pay for housing. Overall, this has given me a greater appreciation for the house I live in and the land we are able to call home. Not everyone has that and now, and it is even harder to find that for a reasonable price.


One of the new insights I have about homelessness in Burlington is how hard the pandemic was for people who cannot afford housing/were on the verge of homelessness. With Todd we talked about how some people do not necessarily want to live in a house, which was interesting to me. Talking with David was also really meaningful. It was powerful to hear about how substance use and addiction can lead to homelessness and the challenges that brings.


I learned that there are people who are against building new residential housing or apartments. Talking to Eric Farrell, he said it’s a form of economic discrimination. In another example, people in South Burlington petitioned against a residential neighborhood because it was taking away the area of green space in their community.


After talking with Eric Farrell and Cindy Reid, I had more insight into how much effort is put into creating housing and how connected those efforts are with the local government–through getting permits, abiding by ordinances, and getting local funding. I was surprised at how much this private and non-profit development was connected but also a little surprised at how much of these projects are independent from the government, even though it is in the best interest of the mayor and the local government to have as much affordable housing as possible.


One new insight I have is how the people with homes are stopping the development of affordable housing. It’s puzzling to see that people who already have homes are refusing the development of affordable housing for people without homes, in their neighborhoods. One thing I heard while talking with Eric that really stuck out to me and relates to this is, “people who oppose housing, have housing.”


I’m more aware now about the stages of going from homeless to owning a house. I have also learned about how housing developments in Burlington have to have a certain percentage of housing made for affordable living [inclusionary zoning]. With Corrine I learned more about how a majority of the homes are owned by white people while other races primarily rent and only few own homes.


It seems that the housing system, specifically here, is going up in value and pushing all the impoverished out, and not allowing new people in. There is more demand than supply, so houses are limited which drives up the price. 


Learning about the housing crisis today has helped me think a lot about what needs to be done and why it’s challenging. Although not all people may see the development of affordable housing as good because it takes away green space, it is important to remember the people who may need those homes, and how advocating against development could mean that you’re encouraging discriminatory zoning. Overall, the past few days have really helped me feel closer to Burlington. Part of this is having been exposed to the issues here makes me realize it is not all great, but now I understand what I can do to help in the future whether it is here or a similar problem elsewhere.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s