MONTPELIER — Advocates and supporters descended on the State House Wednesday to lobby lawmakers to do more to address the growing crisis of homelessness in the state.
A resolution submitted by Reps. Tom Stevens, D-Washington-Chittenden, and Ann Pugh, D-Chittenden 7-2, was approved by the House, designating the day as Homelessness Awareness Day at the State House.
In it, they noted that the 2019 Point-In-Time Count on a single night last January found that there were 1,089 Vermonters without secure housing, 23% of whom were children.
It also noted that the 2019 Housing Opportunity Grant Program reported that the average shelter stay for the homeless was 52 days, the longest in more than 18 years. And the Out of Reach 2019 report noted that a wage of $22.78 an hour would be needed to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in Vermont, the resolution added.
Stevens and Pugh heard testimony about the needs of the homeless and there was a memorial vigil outside the State House to remember homeless people who had died. Legislative leaders attending pledged to push for more funding and support services for the homeless.
In 2017, Stevens also submitted a Bill of Rights for the Homeless, H.492, that sought to prohibit discrimination.
In November, Vermont Interfaith Action of Central Vermont presented a four-year report, “Ending Homelessness in Washington County by 2020.” The report noted that in the four years since VIA was launched, the homeless population of Washington County had risen from 8% to 13% — an anomaly compared with the rest of the state which has seen the homeless population decrease. VIA church leaders have been critical of legislators for not allocating enough resources to deal with homelessness, leaving it to the interfaith community to respond to the need.
Services for the homeless in central Vermont include the year-round Good Samaritan Haven in Barre with 30 beds, which also oversees overflow winter shelters at the Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre with 14 beds and the Bethany Church in Montpelier with 20 beds. Another Way on Barre Street in Montpelier, a peer-led nonprofit that helps support the homeless, unemployed or people suffering with addiction or mental health problems, provides a daytime facility to help keep the homeless warm, along with evening warming shelters at local churches.
Efforts to address homelessness in the Capital City led to the formation of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Committee last year. The City Council recently agreed to allocate $45,000 in its fiscal year 2020-21 to provide services for the homeless in the city.
Speaking after hearing testimony in the House chamber about homelessness, Stevens said he was sympathetic to the suffering and the need to respond.
“Homelessness gets emphasized in the first portion of our year because it’s winter when the negative outcomes of being homeless are exaggerated because of the weather,” Stevens said. “It’s always good for us to know that and it’s always good for us to hear from providers, from people with shared, lived experience to humanize the issue because it all comes down to capacity.
“Sometimes it’s financial, sometimes it’s a building and a place to put people. As Sue Minter, (executive director of Capstone Community Action in Barre), said, ‘I’d like to stop giving out mylar blankets.’ A day like this does what it says: it keeps us aware and it keeps us focused on working through our bills, working through the appropriations’ process to make sure that no Vermonter gets left behind,’” Stevens added.
Minter also provided testimony about the lack of accommodations for homeless families, and other critical needs.
“There’s building more affordable housing, there’s helping to subsidize to help folks to get into apartments ... and there’s providing wrap-around services, because their challenges are acute,” Minter said.
Stevens echoed the need for support services for mental health issues and families with children. But he also expressed concern about the Scott administration taking property transfer taxes out of the “dedicated” Housing and Conservation Fund for more affordable housing programs.
“We think a dedicated fund should be dedicated to the need,” Steven said. “The appropriators in the administration see this as a pot of cash, and it is, but the cash does more work for affordable housing and conservation than it can ever do any place else.”
Rep. Joseph “Chip” Troiano, D-Caledonia-2, also expressed concern after hearing testimony about the plight of the homeless, particularly in rural areas.
“A lot of the resources are going to the more urban areas of the state, rather than the rural areas,” Troiana said. “In one week, I heard issues about children living in cars and going to school cold and hungry — that can’t happen, that’s not what our society is about.”
Stephen Murphy, of Burlington, said he was at the State House to address the needs of homeless veterans that may be displaced by a reduction in services at Canal Street Veterans Housing in Winooski.
“It’s a project where there were four floors for transitional veterans who could transition to the upper floors and have sustained housing, and now we’re hearing that they’re moving furniture out and they haven’t approved an application for a veteran since 2018 — this is extremely disturbing to me,” Murphy said.
Ken Russell, chairman of the Montpelier Homeless Task Force Committee, said there was testimony by Murphy about the need of civic leaders and law enforcement to recognize the rights of the homeless to camp on public land if homeless shelters are full, without penalty, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a lower court decision that protected the homeless from being moved on.
“A lot of people want (the homeless) to go away or ‘not in my back yard’ ... or go elsewhere,” Russell said. “There’s this right to exist ... people who have trauma and they need help and support.”
At the memorial vigil outside the State House for homeless who had died, legislative leaders pledged to provide more funding and services for the homeless. Among the participants were a group of fourth-grade students from Founders Memorial School in Essex Junction who have been studying the problem of homelessness.
“It’s fantastic to see more young people stepping up and saying, ‘This is the Vermont we want to create, this is what’s right for our state and want speak out about it,’” said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden. “I don’t know how many years I’ve been coming to this and I continue to hold the same hope ... that next year is our first annual celebration of being without homelessness in our state.”
Other speakers included Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, who said he did not want to “manage poverty” or “manage homelessness.” Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, D/P-Chittenden, echoed Johnson’s regret at the repeat yearly cycle of addressing the issue, adding: “It becomes a broken record, but we shouldn’t be here every year, and I do feel that same sentiment, that managing homelessness, managing economic distress, managing challenges that people are facing is not a goal — our goal is to end it.”
In downtown Montpelier, Mark Phillips said he was homeless before being admitted to a temporary housing program in the city.
“People are (still) hanging out on the streets and street corners, sleeping on benches or behind buildings,” Phillips said. “I just wish they can get a message out that they too are human, and they too need a place, just like everybody else.”
Wednesday’s event was organized by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness, the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance and the Vermont Housing Coalition.
Disclosure: Editor and Publisher Steven Pappas is the chair of the board of directors of Capstone Community Action.