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Guest Column: Who are Vermont’s homeless?

By Virginia Munkelwitz and Joey Corcoran

We may imagine a homeless person as someone who was evacuated from Sears Lane in Burlington or a person sitting on the sidewalk with a sign asking for money, but statistics tell us most homeless people in Vermont are children and families. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates 2,591 people in Vermont were homeless on any given day in 2021. This number is based on a ‘point in time count’ which is done once a year; it includes people in shelters or motels, but not people who are couch-surfing or sleeping in cars. The U.S. Department of Education estimates 1,006 Vermont public school students experienced homelessness during the year 2021. 

One of the biggest contributing factors to homelessness is domestic violence. When a person leaves an abusive situation taking children with them, they might find shelter couch-surfing, living with family or friends, or sleeping with their children in the car – even in winter. Here is a story from COTS (Burlington’s Committee on Temporary Shelter): 

“Samantha” and her children came to COTS after fleeing a domestic abuse situation. She was scared and suffering from compounding traumas. Samantha’s COTS housing navigator empathized with and supported her because she was also a survivor of domestic violence. Ultimately, Samantha received job training, affordable childcare, and was able to heal and move on with her children to a sustainable permanent housing situation. 

When a person becomes homeless, it is difficult to find new housing, hold a job, provide consistent parenting, and even benefit from government subsidies. Finding a new place to live is very challenging because Vermont’s rental availability rate is low, and the rents are high. A worker who earns the minimum wage of $2100/month can afford 30% on housing, $650/month. This would not pay for a 1-bedroom market-rate apartment that costs $979/month. 

Instead, a person who earns the minimum wage would need subsidized housing, and without a mailing address, they could not receive welfare or subsidy checks. At current rental rates, rent would consume 60-80% of a person’s income, leaving them vulnerable to eviction in the event of unforeseen car troubles or medical expenses. The cost of childcare, combined with the unpredictability of pandemic school closures, has made it difficult for single parents to hold down a job without paid time off. 

Here is a story from Vermont Interfaith Action (VIA): 

“Jane” was living in the Northeast Kingdom with her two young children, working and barely scraping by, paying well over 50% of her income for rent. Her apartment was poorly maintained by the landlord with a leaking roof, mold, giant cockroaches, and peeling paint, but there were no other apartments available that she could afford. She had experienced a period of homelessness as a child and was determined to keep her children from becoming homeless. The tipping point came when she discovered her daughter’s lead level was elevated. She left the apartment and settled her children in a nearby relative’s home so they could continue with consistent childcare and school. She became homeless, sheltered in a motel two hours away from her children. 

Services provided by organizations such as COTS, STEPS to End Domestic Violence, ANEW Place, and Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity help homeless people navigate complex systems while they are in dire straits. But the valuable services they provide have limitations. Imagine living in a motel room with two or three children. Where can the children play during the winter? The aisle between the beds? The motel parking lot? If you’re lucky there might be a park within walking distance, but many motels are on the main artery and most parks are in neighborhoods. 

The living conditions of these children will undoubtedly affect their ability to function as adults. They risk becoming impoverished, inadequately educated, and severely traumatized. 

Headlines about homelessness influence how we think about homeless people, so when you hear about the 40 adults who were evacuated from Sears Lane, please remember the families with 1,006 children who suffered the effects of homelessness during 2021. Please consider supporting additional affordable housing initiatives that will provide safe and consistent housing for people who are trying to work their way out of homelessness. 

VIA encourages you to write to your legislators to support S210, which creates a rental registry and inspection services and increases the availability of more rental units. What are your ideas to better provide for young families and their children who often, for no fault of their own, are experiencing homelessness? 

Virginia Munkelwitz and Joey Corcoran, both of Burlington, are leaders in the Affordable Housing & Homelessness organizing committee of Vermont Interfaith Action.

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