Morgan Brown, a Montpelier resident who understands what it means to be homeless, stood outside the House chamber on Tuesday watching advocates, bureaucrats and politicians file into the daylong “Housing the Homeless” summit to hear Gov. Peter Shumlin’s closing remarks.

Brown who advocated to open the event to the public (it was originally invitation-only) was disappointed with the turnout – not because no one came (140 people were in attendance), but because the event, ironically, lacked the presence of homeless people.

“I was hoping there would be something real meat and potatoes about inclusion and involvement of the population we’re trying to serve,” said Brown. “That’s not what most of these people are talking about. They’re basically just finding out new ways of doing the same thing.”

The group of advocates, politicians, and bureaucrats were more optimistic. The summit was seen by many as the first step towards a coordinated, centralized effort to eliminate homelessness in Vermont.

The state, however, is a long way from realizing that goal. The General Fund budget is tighter than ever, and state officials hope to abate the homeless problem in Vermont without investing more money into the temporary housing support system of shelters and motels.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has no appetite for raising taxes, and he is pushing for efficiencies in human services programs in lieu of increases in state expenditures.

“Some of the ways we’re spending money could be spent better,” Shumlin said.

Officials at the conference said the state and nonprofit housing programs could save money if they were better integrated. Many homeless shelters and agencies, for example, do not use a uniform process for helping homeless people with job training and access to permanent housing.

Agency of Human Services Deputy Secretary Patrick Flood. VTD/Taylor Dobbs
Agency of Human Services Deputy Secretary Patrick Flood. VTD/Taylor Dobbs
The ultimate goal, according to officials, is to get homeless people into permanent affordable housing situations and to help them become financially independent.

Housing advocates offered a variety of approaches to meeting that objective. Some wanted to ask landlords and nonprofit housing providers to work with homeless people and their case managers to stabilize their housing situations. In some cases, there isn’t enough communication between case managers and landlords to prevent evictions.

Homelessness often pushes individuals or families into a downward cycle. It is, ironically perhaps, very expensive to be poor. Once a family loses a home, the state often provides temporary motel housing for families at great expense. Officials said there might be a way to give cash assistance to clients who are struggling to stay in their homes instead of moving them into motels or shelters.

Patrick Flood, deputy secretary of the Agency of Human Services, has said that temporary housing of this nature is more expensive for the state to support in the long run.

At the end of the daylong event, six committees made up of housing officials, Agency of Human Services officials and advocates presented proposals that would address problems with communication between organizations and the management of a variety of programs.

Here are a few of the problems they hope to address:

  • The state doesn’t have a comprehensive housing policy for homeless people;
  • The state needs to develop more permanent housing alternatives for homeless Vermonters;
  • The state needs to develop a system for the “hard to house,” people who are mentally ill, disabled, or pose a danger to others and need single room occupancy housing;
  • The state needs to develop an alternative to the state-funded security deposit system;
  • Homeless Vermonters face housing discrimination barriers.

Flood presented the agency’s proposed housing policy, which would mandate the creation of a Housing Task Force to “ensure all efforts to develop, support or fund housing, including transitional housing or supportive housing services, are fully integrated.” The task force would review all new proposals for such services and ensure inter-agency coordination.

“If our clients don’t have stable housing, nothing we try to do for them will work,” Flood.

Because the Agency of Human Services, local housing authorities, non-profits, and housing providers are all working on the same issue, many participants saw this as an opportunity to coordinate their efforts and avoid redundancy of effort.

“One of the things that resounded was to streamline the applications to housing systems,” said Rita Markley, executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter. Markley proposed to “streamline applications for subsidized/affordable housing … so that homeless individuals and families are not forced to navigate numerous, often duplicative, systems (BHA, WHA, VSHA, Cath. Sq, CHT, COTS, S + C programs.)”

One presenter from the Vermont State Housing Authority mentioned that some low income tenants have up to three different case managers for various programs they’re involved with. Advocates and government officials agreed that by eliminating this kind of inefficiency, money could be freed up in order to fill in gaps in the current system and make spending more efficient.

“There’s not a lot of synergy in the way we set it up,” Flood said. The summit, he said, was about creating that synergy.

Shumlin said a security deposit replacement proposal, for example, could save the state half million dollars.

“The ideas that came out of today, what I’m encouraged by is that they really don’t necessarily require more money,” he said. “We’re taking a hard look at what’s working, what’s not working, and how we can better utilize the resources that we have to end homelessness in Vermont.”

Twitter: @@taylordobbs. Taylor Dobbs is a freelance reporter based in Burlington, Vt. Dobbs is a recent graduate of the journalism program at Northeastern University. He has written for PBS-NOVA, Wired...