It’s 5:30 pm in the Price Chopper parking lot, already getting dark. At the end of the pull-in stands a man holding a cardboard sign. He’s underdressed for the temperature, but doesn’t seem to mind, watching the cars drive by. The customers that pass are used to seeing him, few stop to wonder why he’s there.
“I was laid off,” he explains. “Some bullshit reason that I never really understood. I waited for a while, hoping that it was more of a misunderstanding than anything, and that I’d be back soon. I had bills to pay, you know?”
Vermont is an expensive place to live — the 15th most expensive state in 2013. The majority of jobs available offer wages around 10$ an hour, and the unemployment benefits give even less, causing most housing to be unaffordable.
“The combination of these factors leaves many of our neighbors at risk of losing their housing,” says Peter Kellerman, Assistant Director at the John Graham Housing & Services in Vergennes. “Consequently, the need for rental vouchers in order to support rental costs is critical, and the wait list to receive them gets longer every year.”
“My call never came, and I had wasted over a month,” says the man at Price Chopper. “At that point, everything was coming up due, and I had nothing to give.”
The National Low Income Housing Coalition has stated that the past few years, in Vermont, average rent is at an all time high. Just to afford a basic “nothing special” apartment could require a salary of nearly double minimum wage, and go up even higher with the addition of utilities.
“I filed for unemployment, just to attempt to make ends meet,” continues the Price Chopper man. “Who can really live off of $300 a week though?”
The current maximum unemployment benefit per week is $436, which is about the same as making about $10.90 an hour on a regular work schedule. That is well below the required amount, which is upwards of $20 an hour in some areas.
“I’ve been lucky enough that I still have a few friends that allow me some creature comforts,” reflects the man at Price Chopper. “A lot of people in my situation have burned most of their bridges and are completely lost, without any help.”
Two major drivers of homelessness are drug addiction and domestic violence.
Addicts are even further strained when looking for benefits. In order to qualify for unemployment in the first place, you need to be actively searching and applying for jobs on a weekly basis. You also must not have been removed for your previous job based on misconduct or lack of reliability. Those are both common for people with addictions.
Both recreational and prescribed drugs, particularly opioids, have been rampant in Vermont over the last few years.
“Addiction is a crippling disease that requires intensive, ongoing intervention and support.” explains Kellerman.“Recovery is a lifelong process and takes tremendous dedication.”
Recovery is very expensive. With the integration of Obamacare in 2010, Vermont was forced away from the smaller insurance plans that people had become accustomed to, working instead with Medicaid, placing all the costs in one place. Modern recovery programs are often upwards of $15,000 a year per patient, with thousands of patients to cover.
“One of the more common contributing factors of domestic violence is chronic stress for families who struggle to meet their economic needs” explains Peter Kellerman, Assistant Director at the John Graham Housing & Services in Vergennes. 4,000 people are currently served in the state, but there are often upwards of 70-75 new “seekers of help” per month. Out of those 4,000, only around 300 have secured emergency housing.
“Regardless of causes,” says Kellerman, “…many families are displaced when a parent must flee for their safety as well as their children’s.”
The domestic violence help organizations in Vermont are often under-equipped to handle the people they are trying to help.
The waiting list for a Section 8 Subsidy is closed through The Vermont State Housing Authority, the primary force behind the housing program. They stopped their emergency program around a year ago due to budgeting concerns, and the fact that a lot of people try to take advantage of the housing services.
“If you were a victim of either an uncontrollable natural disaster or a domestic violence situation,” explains Morgan Gray, a VSHA Client Services Specialist, “you could be approved for emergency service, which would immediately bring your name to the top of the waiting list.”
For the families who successfully had a section 8 subsidy issued to them “We work very hard to ensure the truth and keep it legit but you know people,” says Sandy Savard, a VSHA Client Service Specialist. “If they can find a way to take advantage of the program they will.”