Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration are taking steps to prevent more homeless Vermonters from freezing to death.
Three people have died of exposure this winter because they didn’t have access to shelter.
The governor said the state will waive eligibility requirements for homeless Vermonters seeking shelter during dangerously cold weather so that “every homeless person knows that when it’s cold they have a place to go.”
“It’s tragic that any state allows anyone to freeze outside,” Shumlin told reporters at a press conference in the governor’s ceremonial office. “Our goal is simple: Move homeless people from shelters and motels to permanent housing.”
About 4,000 Vermonters sought shelter at some point last year.
The Shumlin administration has also launched a rental subsidy program and authorized 100 housing vouchers to move people in motels and shelters into permanent housing.
The programs will cost $1.5 million. The money will come from General Assistance funds. In addition, some of the funding from the recently announced New Emergency Solutions Grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will be put toward affordable housing projects for homeless Vermonters.
The governor also signed an executive order re-establishing the Vermont Council on Homelessness. He named Angus Chaney as the chair of the council and director of housing, a new position in the Agency of Human Services, to coordinate homelessness prevention efforts between AHS and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Chaney has served as the community services program administrator for the Office of Economic Opportunity.
Chaney said housing is “key to any of the services we provide.”
“The goal is fairly simple: It’s to end homelessness,” Chaney said. “The solution is not rocket science. It’s affordable housing. You’re going to see some exciting changes in the next year in terms of the way we view this issue. It can’t be viewed through the lens of a single grant program or single division of government.”
It’s important, he said, for the state and nonprofit groups that help the homeless to come together to “re-energize our efforts,” to address what he called a 30-year crisis.
“It would be easy to let ourselves slide a little bit and start to accept this level of homelessness in Vermont,” Chaney said. “I would encourage you all not to accept that.”
Rita Markley, executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter, said in a down economy “it’s so easy to just focus on the crisis and to do a short-term fix.”
She lauded the governor for addressing the immediate needs of homeless Vermonters and moving ahead with changes to programs that will have long-term impact and “break the fall” for Vermonters who are on the verge of becoming homeless. She said the new director of housing at AHS will “navigate many of the cumbersome systems currently in place to create a coherent homeless prevention strategy.”
The new flexible guidelines for emergency assistance, she said, will ensure “that no Vermonter on the coldest nights is left without a place to turn.”
“These flexible guidelines are going to mean that when shelters are full, or there isn’t room, that they’ll get emergency assistance, perhaps through an overflow motel for people who might not otherwise be eligible,” Markley said.
Markley said the state subsidies will help keep people in their homes during difficult times, “when their job changes or their family income plummets or something happens we will keep them in homes.”
Over the last four years, COTS has run a similar homeless prevention and rehousing program she said that costs about $800 per household that has prevented 816 families subject to eviction and foreclosure from “sleeping in their cars, in shelters or doubled up in places that aren’t good for kids or families.”