BURLINGTON — The results of an annual survey suggest the number of homeless people in Chittenden County continues to decline.
An annual point-in-time count of homeless people in the state’s most populous county shows that, on the night of Jan. 24, there were 291 people in shelters or temporary housing or completely unsheltered.
That figure is a 12 percent decrease from the 2016 survey and a 45 percent drop since 2014, when the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance — a group of nonprofits and government agencies — counted 532 homeless people in the county.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said the continued progress toward ending homelessness in the region stems from a decision early in his tenure to place the Community Economic Development Office in charge of federal grant applications for the homeless alliance.
CEDO’s Marcy Esbjerg helped champion a housing-first approach to addressing homelessness that has proven effective elsewhere in the country, the mayor said.
Collaborations with the Champlain Housing Trust and the University of Vermont Medical Center, as well as other nonprofits and medical service providers, are starting to reduce the number of chronically homeless people and homeless people with high needs.
Those include a number of projects to convert failing motels into permanent or transitional housing with on-site medical and social services to help people stay housed and healthy.
The survey shows that the number of chronically homeless people has dropped from 101 in 2015 to 44 in 2017, a 56 percent decrease. During that same period, the number of homeless people with severe mental illness decreased from 153 to 88, and the number abusing substances dropped from 177 to 53.
An official who helped conduct the survey said the greater reduction in substance abuse versus mental illness may have to do with the fact that, typically, those figures are self-reported by the people surveyed, who may not disclose an addiction.
The survey does not capture the number of people who are considered housing insecure, meaning they’re living with friends or family, or people who are sometimes doubled up in public housing — a practice that puts people’s rental subsidies at risk.
There’s no effective way to measure the population at risk of becoming homeless, said Margaret Bozik, with the Champlain Housing Trust, who co-chairs the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance. Therefore, it’s unclear whether that population is growing or shrinking as the number of homeless people on a night in January has decreased over time, she said.
When officials talk about ending homelessness, they do not mean preventing anyone from ever lacking a place to stay. People fleeing domestic violence or experiencing a mental health crisis or sudden financial loss will always need to leave certain living situations, Bozik said.
“The goal is to make homelessness rare and brief,” she said.
That is an achievable goal in Chittenden County, officials said, one that would be bolstered by continued investment in transitional and affordable housing.
To that end, the mayor and member organizations of the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance urged lawmakers to approve a $35 million housing bond in Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed budget.
That money includes spending targeted to transitional and low-income housing. Brenda Torpe, executive director of the Champlain Housing Trust, said there are no shortage of housing projects in the region that would include affordable homes.
The limiting factor currently is finding the money to get them built, Torpe said. If the Legislature approves a budget this week that includes the $35 million housing bond, it would go a long way toward ensuring projects in the planning stages come to fruition, she said.