By Guy Page
Despite historic low unemployment (2.8 percent), the State of Vermont says the total number of homeless Vermonters is growing year by year:
- 2018: 1291 homeless people (5 percent increase)
- 2017: 1225 (11 percent increase)
- 2016: 1102.
Most experts agree that:
- Housing is too expensive.
- Homelessness sometimes results when people are overcome life circumstances such as mental illness, substance abuse, chronic under/unemployment, family separation and release from prison. More controversially, there may be a third reason (as espoused by Solutions for Change in California):
- A government and social services culture that unintentionally enables and empowers #2.
Vermont’s homeless population seems vulnerable to all three influences.
In Greater Burlington, the average two-bedroom apartment rents for $1442/month, more than the average rent in the high-income states of Massachusetts ($1426), New York ($1340) and California ($1337). Only those states’ heavily urban and coastal communities in those states pay more, on average, for a 2BR. Vermont has the 14th highest rent ($1,038) in the country. The cheapest units in Greater Burlington average $920, well above the total monthly disability check.
A Vermonter earning the $15/hour in a fulltime, permanent job takes home about $26,000 a year (based on $31,400 gross). Renting just a $920 studio apartment gobbles 43 percent of take-home pay. A two-bedroom apartment in the Burlington area will consume about 67 percent. In short, urban Vermonters are becoming like their big-city counterparts: “rent serfs.” Joel Kotkin, author/expert on American cities, calls the ultra-high cost of West Coast urban living “California’s New Feudalism” in which not only the poor but the middle class also cannot afford to buy homes, and instead live like serfs or American sharecroppers, paying huge rents that limit their quality of life, prevent them from saving to buy their own home, and – when life overwhelms – put them on the street.
It’s a troubling irony; while leaders in these big Blue States preach economic equality, their cities practice landownership by the few and serf-like living by the many. Huge sums spent on housing subsidies and temporary housing do little to slow the cost of housing.
Overcome by life circumstances
Tomorrow morning, Nov. 28, state human services officials will brief legislators on the 2019 outlook. Helping the needy is a huge, complex problem but it’s a safe bet lawmakers will be asked to spend more money on substance abuse and mental illness. Without spending a cent, legislators could limit both by not legalizing “tax and regulate” marijuana. The commercial pot industry needs high-use addicts to thrive and will advertise to get them. T&R Vermont will need more addiction and mental health treatment professionals. The state already has too few and can scarcely afford them. Without such assistance, and perhaps even with it, pot-addicted Vermonters can lose their jobs, their minds, and their homes.
Futhermore, Vermont can expect a Trimmigrant influx — itinerants who live the marijuana lifestyle and who work at cultivating operations “trimming” the marijuana plants to enhance plant growth. Pot-legal Colorado and West Coast states all have experienced an increase in homelessness since legalization, with at least some growth in would-be “trimmigrants” who cannot find employment but stay nonetheless, eventually becoming homeless. Colorado law enforcement reports that at least a third of its incarcerated population who are homeless came to the state in part because of the attraction of legal marijuana.
Government/social services empowering and enabling homelessness
This is admittedly hard to prove, much less make moral judgments about. Organizations like Solutions for Change argue that in striving to meet basic needs without insisting on lifestyle changes, homeless advocates may actually reinforce the problems that landed individuals in homelessness. For example in 2018 the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance announced a strategy of “bringing together the three things it takes to get, and keep, people housed: (1) the housing itself, (2) the rental subsidy to make that housing affordable to people at the lowest income levels, and (3) the services to help people achieve housing stability.” None of those goals require any lifestyle changes.
On a state level, a Homeless bill of rights bill that failed to pass through the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee last year may have new life if its lead sponsor, Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury), gets his Christmas wish and is named committee chair. H.412 protects important rights to access to employment and housing, but also got pushback from business and municipal groups that said it might give vagrants undesirable legal protection for downtown loitering and pestering shoppers for donations. However, the homeless rate in Connecticut fell dramatically after that state passed a Homeless Bill or Rights – so it’s hard to argue that H.412 would lead to more homelessness.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.