Vermont’s homelessness crisis is getting much worse, not better. Those are the findings of January’s federally-mandated point-in-time count, an annual effort to take a census of each state’s homeless population. 

Statewide, this year’s count registered 3,295 people experiencing homelessness, an 18.5% increase over the prior year, according to a report released this week by the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance and the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness. The number of people in households with children who are becoming homeless also rapidly grew — by a stunning 36%.

The report’s authors wrote they believe the statewide jump is due in part to the end of several pandemic-era supports, including the termination of the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program and the expiration of an eviction moratorium in July 2022. And they added that Vermont’s extremely low rental vacancy rates — ranging from 0.5% to 3% across the state — are allowing landlords to hike rents and be increasingly choosy about tenants.

Unhoused people who are living in cars and outside are far harder to count than those who are sheltered, and the report also noted that the state’s use of motels and hotels to shelter those experiencing homelessness using federal Covid-19 funding has allowed for a more accurate census these last three years.

But with that federal cash now gone, Vermont is winding down its pandemic-era motel programs and reverting back to a pre-Covid-19 status quo. For Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College who researches homelessness, the new data “adds to many indicators revealing a crisis outrunning the state’s response.”

“Amid a 36% increase in homelessness among families with children, the state is poised to unshelter up to 600 children this summer,” added Sosin, who advocated for the continuation of the program during the legislative session. (The Legislature declined, but the matter is not settled — a group of Democrats and Progressives is hoping to use June’s veto session to re-open budget talks on the matter.)

The report also noted stark racial disparities in the data. Black people represent 1.4% of the state’s total population — but 8% of those who are unhoused are Black, according to this year’s figures. Last year’s data reflected a similar but somewhat less acute disparity — Black people represented 6% of the unhoused population and 1.4% of the statewide population.

The point-in-time counts, which are conducted by shelter and social service workers across each state on one night every winter, are widely believed to be an underestimate of the problem. Unsheltered people in particular are hard to find, but the breadth and depth of each local census also relies heavily on local resources. And the census does not include those who are at risk of homelessness, couch surfing or doubling up with friends or family. 

Despite such limitations, the data offers the best comparative figures about the state of homelessness in America, and is used by the federal and state governments to guide policy and funding decisions. Point-in-time counts also formed the basis of a 2022 federal report that found that Vermont’s rates of homelessness are the second highest in the country, behind only California.

VTDigger's political reporter.