The state’s housing crisis is top of the agenda in Montpelier and self-evident to most renters, employers and first-time homebuyers — to say nothing of the nearly 3,000 Vermonters currently sheltering in motels thanks to pandemic-era emergency housing rules.
But a figure tucked inside a federal government report and first reported by the Guardian last week still stunned housing and homelessness advocates.
Vermont has the second-highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the country, behind only California. That’s according to the latest figures, published in December, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Based on a nationwide tally taken last January, the federal government estimates that 43.1 out of every 10,000 Vermonters are unhoused.
“The latest data really brings the problem of homelessness into focus and puts it into a larger national context,” said Anne Sosin, the interim director of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition. “We’ve known that Vermont faces a crisis in housing and homelessness, but this really helps us to understand the true scale of the problem.”
The HUD report did include some brighter news: For the time being, Vermont is doing a better job than any other state at providing some shelter to those who are experiencing homelessness. Only 2% of unhoused Vermonters were outdoors, according to last January’s count.
HUD’s point-in-time count, conducted by shelter workers and advocates nationwide on the same night in January, is widely considered to be an undercount of the actual problem, and is highly dependent on local resources. Martin Hahn, the executive director of the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness, which spearheads the effort in Vermont each year, said it’s possible that the high rate of sheltered homelessness in Vermont allowed the state to get a more accurate count than other states, contributing to its poor ranking.
But overall, Hahn nevertheless thinks the report is a generally accurate indicator of where Vermont stands.
The high number of Vermonters who are unhoused but sheltered is also an indicator of a likely crisis to come. For now, the state is relying on motels and hotels to temporarily house the vast majority of people who are unhoused. But to do this, it has been using the large — but temporary — infusions of federal cash that flowed into the state during the pandemic, and state officials now estimate that these pots of money will run dry March 31.
Democrats have included $21 million for emergency housing in a mid-year spending plan, which passed the House last week. That’s enough money to keep Vermont’s motel housing program going basically as is until June 30.
The plan has been met with opposition from Gov. Phil Scott and nearly all House Republicans, although Democrats in the lower chamber have more than enough votes for a gubernatorial override, if needed. It’s now up to the Senate to weigh in. The Scott administration wrote to Senate Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, this week to ask the upper chamber to consider restricting eligibility for the program to trim the price tag down to $11 million.
“We know some of the approaches taken during the pandemic are not sustainable absent federal funding, which is why, again, we need to focus on permanent housing options,” Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, wrote in an email.
As for what to do past June 30, only the governor has put forward a plan — although it is generally not viewed favorably by advocates, who argue it does not sufficiently address the need.
In his proposal for next year’s budget, the governor has set aside $26 million for emergency housing in hotels — about half what Vermont spent annually in 2021 and 2022.
Administration officials estimate this should be enough to pay for anyone who needs a room during the winter, although eligibility would revert back to much stricter, pre-pandemic rules during the rest of the year. Scott’s spending plan also includes $3.75 million to expand shelter capacity, enough to provide shelter to 90-120 additional households, according to estimates.
Scott also wants another $20 million for the Vermont Housing Improvement Program, which pays landlords to rehab vacant units in need of repairs in exchange for temporarily keeping rents affordable and prioritizing people exiting homelessness. (House lawmakers have already signed off on $5 million, and will consider the rest as part of the budget process.)
Lawmakers, who begin their budget work after the governor, have not yet articulated a response, although an informal group has begun meeting to discuss what should happen after June 30. Sosin said a list of proposals from her coalition is forthcoming this week.
“The per capita rate of homelessness is a sense at the scale of the current problem, but the rate of sheltered homelessness helps us understand the risk of reckless policymaking,” she said.
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