MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin announced proposals to address poverty on Monday and signed an order forming an executive council to guide those efforts.
Flanked by administration officials, anti-poverty advocates and service providers, Shumlin stressed the importance of assisting the state’s most vulnerable people at a time when Congress and the federal government are cutting money that has long helped Vermonters pay rent, heat their homes and put food on the table.
“We’re at a time in our nation’s history where Congress is cutting back the resources that are so important to Vermonters who are struggling to make ends meet,” Shumlin said, adding those cuts deepen the hurt of a sluggish economy where wages remain stagnant.
He noted that 100,000 residents saw a reduction in federal food assistance recently and the state’s Section 8 affordable housing voucher program has shrunk by more than 10 percent. In addition there have been cuts in home heating fuel assistance subsidies, caused by sequestration and other budget negotiations in Washington.
Shumlin declined to give details on how these proposals, which cost a combined $2.55 million, would be paid for as part of a balanced budget when the state is facing a $70 million budget shortfall.
“The money’s coming from our budget. To tell you exactly where the money is coming from I’d have to tell you my budget, and I’m going to give you that on Jan. 15,” he told reporters.
He acknowledged this year’s budget will require tough choices, but added that governors have priorities and reducing poverty is one of his.
Asked if his budget would fully fund the General Assistance program, which serves as a source of last resort to pay for the type of assistance covered in the proposals floated Monday, Shumlin was non-committal.
“You gotta wait and see until Jan. 15 when I give you my budget, and we’ll give you the exact numbers of what we’re going to be doing. But what I have said is, as tough as this budget is – and it is tough – you’re going to see us work very hard not to, whenever possible, balance this budget on the backs of the folks who are already taking a hit,” Shumlin said.
“Now what does that mean? That means we don’t need to slash programs, it does mean we do need to bend the rate of growth in programs,” he explained.
The anti-poverty proposals include:
→ Doubling of the Vermont Rental Subsidy program to $1 million. The program helps families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless find permanent housing.
→ A $300,000 increase of state funding for the Emergency Solutions Grants that help cover the cost of emergency shelters. Those programs face a loss of $200,000 due to federal sequestration cuts. The additional $100,000 would increase seasonal capacity at shelters.
→ An increase of $200,000 to the Family Supportive Housing, which provides case management services to homeless families as they look for housing.
→ An $800,000 increase for top performing child care providers in the state (based on the STARS quality child care recognition system), and an update of the federal poverty level on which payment for child care is calculated.
→ An additional $650,000 for substance abuse and mental health treatment services for ReachUp recipients, which would be matched with $576,197 in federal money.
Linda Ryan, executive director of Samaritan House Inc. in St. Albans lauded the proposals and the new council for addressing multiple issues related to poverty and homelessness together, instead of keeping safety-net programs in their own “little silos.”
Increasingly, it’s not just the homeless who need help getting by, she added.
“There’s a lot of working poor, people with two to three jobs, who can’t afford to live in an apartment on their own,” Ryan said, “That’s why the rental subsidy is so important.”
Case managers can help those who are striving to find permanent housing, as well as those looking to keep it, learn the personal finance and budgeting skills to help them improve their situation, she added.
As of its last point-in-time survey, the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Vermont counted 1,500 homeless people in the state. On any given night, more than 300 people crowd into shelters and nearly a third are children, said Dave Yacavone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.
Homeless shelter operators said some facilities have been operating at overflow levels for close to a year, and beds are consistently filled.
Vermont spends $1.2 million in state and federal money on its shelter system, Yacavone said. The actual cost of homelessness is much higher, Shumlin said, because homeless people use many other state services.
The actual number of homeless people in the state is likely much higher than the 1,500 counted by HUD, said Erhard Mahnke, coordinator of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.
Many Vermonters fall into a group he called the “hidden homeless,” those who are couch surfing or doubled up with friends or family, but who have no stable long-term housing. If they were included, the number of homeless could be as high as 2,800, Mahnke said.