Business & Economy

Survey: State homeless population increases by 9 percent

Vermont’s homeless population grew by 9 percent this year, according to a report released Wednesday by two anti-homelessness groups.

The 2014 Point-in-Time survey counted 1,556 homeless Vermonters the night of Jan. 28, including 227 people who said they were victims of domestic violence and 371 children.

Formerly homeless people and those who help the homeless Wednesday said the actual number of homeless people in the state is likely much higher.

Federal budget cuts slashed the number of Section 8 vouchers in Vermont and contributed to the rise in homelessness this year, said Jeanne Montross, co-chairwoman of the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness.

“We lost a lot of Section 8 vouchers due to sequestration,” Montross said.

The number of people who have lost homes as a result of domestic violence is disturbing, Montross said, especially because that number does not count children.

“When we think about children who have witnessed domestic violence and then they are homeless, you put those two things together and the trauma to that child is huge,” she said.

The survey found 166 people living outdoors or in places unfit for human habitation, an increase of 58 percent from 2013.

That number surprised Montross, who said there were new cold weather shelters this year.

The Chittenden County Continuum of Care, which covers the state’s most populous county, along with the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness, which covers the rest of the state, released the survey.

It was performed via volunteers across the state who interviewed homeless people on the same night.

The full survey report includes more specific data about the number of people chronically homeless versus those using motel vouchers. It also includes the number of homeless households versus single people as well as the number of homeless veterans and disabled people.

The report, performed annually, only includes people who meet the federal definition of homelessness. It does not count people living with friends or “precariously housed.”

Some said the study failed to capture an accurate picture of homelessness in Vermont.

“It’s grossly undercounted, there’s way more people that are living homeless than what this report says,” said Morgan Brown, a member of the Vermont Council on Homelessness.

The report uses a definition of homelessness that is too narrow and doesn’t count people who live in hotels on their own dime or people who double up with friends, he said.

Brown said over the course of the 12-year period he was homeless the survey never counted him.

Thirty-five percent of the state’s homeless people live in Chittenden County, according to the survey. Ten percent are located in Rutland.

The cost of housing causes many people to become homeless, said Rita Markley, executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter, a Burlington shelter.

“The fundamental challenge is that wages for many Vermonters are still low. They’re flat or falling. And housing costs are extraordinarily high,” Markley said.

New state and private programs to prevent homelessness are effective but they it will take time for these efforts to affect the data, she said.

Markley also said the number of homeless in Vermont is likely higher than 1,556.

“We need to invest in more affordable housing, we need to attract higher wage jobs, and we need to support and increase the homelessness prevention resources,” she said.

Whitney Nichols, a formerly homeless man who now serves on the Statewide Independent Living Council and the Governor’s Council on Pathways from Poverty, said formerly homeless people should share their experiences and point out that there is hope.

“We can help one another to get through some of these difficult times,” he said.

Two other recent reports also showed an increase in the number of homeless people in Vermont.

Vermont has seen a 62 percent increase in shelter use since 2009, according to the One Night Shelter Count, released in December by the Office of Economic Opportunity.

That report also found a 7 percent increase from the prior year in emergency shelter use and a 14 percent increase in transitional housing use.

The number of homeless students in Vermont is also growing, according to an October report from the U.S. Department of Education.

That report found that from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2012, Vermont’s homeless student population grew by 35 percent, one of the sharpest increases in the country.

In the 2011-2012, there were 1,202 homeless students, according to the report.

The findings help the two Continuums of Care apply for grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and also help inform local and state groups about the status of homeless Vermonters.

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  • Carl Marcinkowski

    I heard a radio commentary yesterday. A speaker announced that the global poverty level has gone down (as US poverty levels rise) as a result of free trade agreements with the USA . They go on to conclude that this is good, that we should be thinking as a global community. I don’t know if this speaker is one of the corporate masters making big bucks from foreign investment or just a dreamer with means to a decent living. The NAFTA killed US manufacturing jobs just as the proposed Pacific Rim trade agreement will. It’s about the economy/jobs, stupid.

  • Sandy Gregg

    There are boarded up houses next to the Burlington Airport. Could these abandoned houses be utilized to help some people?

    • Seth Steinzor

      Those houses are boarded up I believe because noise from the Air National Guard renders them uninhabitable. It’s so important to defend us against- who? Canada? Meanwhile good housing stock goes wasted. And more will be wasted when the F-35s come in and render even more houses uninhabitable.

  • Wendy wilton

    Some of the homelessness associated with families is the result of the state’s ineffective policies. Here’s how:

    The legislature has supported a long standing policy that general assistance should be paid directly to the recipient in hopes that they will manage their own finances, including paying rent. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned policy fails when recipients cannot manage their own finances due to mental illness or substance abuse issues.

    Second, AHS has an internal policy that recipients of general assistance who have been evicted due to lack of rental payment while on assistance are subject to a direct payment to the landlord for rent. A landlord can request direct payment after 2 months of non-payment, but the state will only make the direct payments if the recipient agrees to state monitoring, which many do not. It appears these policies are not applied consistently or are difficult to maintain and as a result some families rack up serial evictions resulting in no landlord willing to rent to them. When this occurs the state has no choice but to put them up in motels at great cost to the state and emotional cost to the kids until another option is found.

    We need to recognize that some families are unable to manage their own finances and institute controls sooner rather than later.
    This was the subject of an OpEd that I wrote a few months ago:

    • Aula DeWitt

      I am not sure where you have received your information from but i can tell you positively that GA rental and hotel payments are made directly to the landlord or hotel, not to the applicant.

      • Wendy wilton

        Not always true. I know people who get the GA directly.

  • At a recent Community Commins meeting, Rural Edge (Northeast Kingdom) offered some fascinating information from the landlord’s perspective regarding why affordable housing units are disappearing. In Newport, affordable units are giving way to gentrification efforts without replacement. Being a landlord can be overwhelming. We need a “how to” for people who want to go into that biz successfully. As well, we need to relook at laws that perhaps over protect tenants and which ultimately make it harder to keep affordable apartments in stock.

    • Renée Carpenter

      In addition, the non-residential and commercial property tax rates compounded by expenses of basic maintenance of older rental housing stock drives up the costs for rental property owners; again compounded by the real estate market that drives up rents…. and multiplied by the costs of developing new affordable housing.

      It is complex and will require wise and thoughtful problem solving to shift the current economic structure that puts basic human rights (like access to affordable housing) out of reach for an increasing number of people, including families with young children and/ or elders in their care.

      Clearly we need to be looking at new models for how we live.

  • Judith McLaughlin

    Thank you Wendy for bringing to light a potential remedy that no one in Montpelier is willing to talk about. Most homeless are unable to manage their finances, without assistance.

    Thank you Barbara for bringing another situation to light, landlords have less rights than their tenants…being so, they’ll do everything they can to find the “right” tenant.

  • J. Scott Cameron

    State policies keep driving up the cost of rental housing and making landlords less likely to take a chance with marginal renters. A recent example was to shift more of the statewide school tax increase this year to commercial properties and away from residential properties, in order to get more homeowners to vote for school budgets.

    Buildings which provide rental units in many Vermont cities and towns are often located in flood plains. Recent changes on the federal level have dramatically increased the cost of flood insurance, which in turn drives up rents. Every commercial or residential building in a flood zone will see at least a 20% increase in the cost of flood insurance, not only this year, but every year until they are paying “market prices”. New owners of buildings in flood zones will have to pay the market price immediately. For $200,000 in flood insurance the cost will be around $20,000 a year, up from about $2,500 a year ago.

    We will need a big change in laws, financing and attitudes before anything changes. This will have to be a public-private effort: perhaps we could stop vilifying landlords and understand the positive role they play in providing housing?

    People deserve a decent place to live. Housing is more important than healthcare, but we (as a state and as a nation) are going nuts trying to fix a system that was, by and large, performing well (especially in Vermont), while ignoring the housing issue. Well, the homeless rarely vote, after all.

  • Marshall Lentini

    So it seems that:

    a) ‘gentrification’, i.e. development or ‘growth’, marginalizes the poor by raising the cost of rent


    b) makes owners less likely to “take a chance” on renting to them.

    In other words: unrestricted capitalism not only creates the poor but, when a capitalist market contracts – the underlying desperation of “growth at any price” – makes them poorer.

    Oh well. Such is the cost of “our freedoms”.