By Guy Page
According to the July 2 Rutland Herald, the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness reports the number of unsheltered people — living in their cars, tents and other places — saw a 39% increase this year.
The July 20 Valley News reports that a group that usually gives out 40 emergency tents a year has given out 65 this year already, and there are other troubling signs that homelessness in the Upper Valley (mostly Windsor County) is increasing.
Seven Days reported May 29 that homeless people living in tents in Chittenden County went up from 17 last year to 48 this year. According to the annual count performed by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness, Bennington Countywent from just one unsheltered person in 2018 to 22 in 2019. Many counties reported fewer unsheltered people, or stayed about the same. Statewide, unsheltered people account for about 10% of the total “homeless” population, which also includes people living in shelters, transitional housing, and motels with vouchers.
The July 24 Montpelier Bridge describes growing concerns over downtown loitering and panhandling, with many residents linking it to lack of affordable housing and homelessness. Meanwhile, the woods along the railroad tracks in nearby Berlin are “home” to many temporary shelters.
To be sure the number of unsheltered Vermonters has been higher in recent years – in 2012 the total reported number was almost twice as high. Also, it should be noted that some homeless people prefer the comparative freedom of unsheltered living to the restraints of living in a homeless shelter, which despite obvious advantages in comfort also have more rules. The July 25 Brattleboro Reformer reports that following the rules is the main complaint about Brattleboro’s Prouty homeless shelter.
Still, Vermont’s one-year rise in unsheltered living is reason for concern. Apart from the difficulty posed to the inhabitants, a growth in temporary shelters burdens tax-payer funded social services. As Herald reporter Katie Barcellos noted, “Living in tents, cars and motels often leaves the homeless populations without adequate access to health care, good food and resources, the results of which can mean a heavy tax burden for others for emergency services.”
Also, Vermonters seeing media reports of the unprecedented growth of unsheltered homelessness in West Coast cities can’t help but notice that Vermont law and culture often follows California, for better or worse. Like California, Vermont has generous social services, tolerant policing and local government, expensive housing, and resistance to building housing to meet market demand.
In California, disease, rat infestations, and other public health problems have predictably followed the growth of temporary shelters for the homeless. To date, California seems unable and/or unwilling to take steps to reduce the explosion of homeless encampments. The LA Times reports that some state officials want the Legislature to pass legislation requiring municipalities to ensure a “right to shelter” by building enough permanent shelter to house any homeless person in need. The proposed law is patterned after a New York City ordinance, which may or may not be working – numbers of unsheltered were down by about 2% this year, but there are still about 3600 people sleeping unsheltered, and the city’s total homeless population (sheltered and unsheltered) is 61,000, the highest since the Great Depression, the NY Coalition for the Homeless reports.
Still, New York’s 1-20 sheltered/homeless ratio looks pretty good to San Francisco, where two-thirds of the homeless live unsheltered, according to SFGate.
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.