The Crisis Plaguing the Green Mountain State

This article was written by Journalism student Lei DeGroot.

 

History and Background

In January 2019 the homeless population of Vermont was 1,089, according to legislature.vermont.gov. The projected homeless population in 2024 stands at 3,295 according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. 

 

Vermont homelessness has become detrimental to the state and its residents. Will Eberle, the director of Recovery Vermont and a Member of the Vermont Foodbank board is now using his childhood experiences of homelessness to help others. He found himself in unstable situations often. “My earliest memories were of living in a shack with no running water.” 

Top: Rep. Harrison-Rutland-1, Rep. Elder-Addison-4, Rep. Chapin-Washington-5, Rep, Whitman-Bennington-2 of , Rep. Labounty-Caledonia-3, Bottom: Rick DeAngelis of The Good Samaritan Haven, Rep. Williams-Washington-3, Nate Formalarie of Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, Will Eberle of Recovery Vermont, Ken Russell of Another Way, Brenda Siegel a former gubernatorial candidate. (sources include: Ballotpedia, Linkedin, Vermontlegistlative.gov, Rick DeAngelis.)

 

According to Eberle, the temptation is to blame substance use disorder or mental health issues for homelessness.  But it’s actually several different factors from unaffordability to an inadequate number of units being built, however, some residents feel as if it’s a bit different here, “ We do assume that it’s our collective responsibility as a community,” said Eberle. We need to acknowledge that our communities have a role to play in this crisis.

 

Homelessness is a traumatic and life-changing experience that many people may try to hide away and shun the rest of society. “That’s a little disingenuous because typically this undercounts people, and we know there are more people out there,” Eberle said. Dane Whitman (D) of Bennington-2 is in the state’s government and sees these issues leaking into the statehouse, “We’re seeing people that maybe weren’t really visible to the state before,” said Whitman.

 

The homelessness issue within this state and within this country is dire, those who are Vermont-born and raised individuals have gotten the chance to see this issue turn from an issue to a crisis. ”I was born and raised in Vermont. I love Vermont. I am really disappointed in us right now. I am really disappointed in our in how we have not cared for our most vulnerable in this state, how we have not addressed the overdose crisis, the way that we need to how we’re having a little bit of a back backside on crime policy, how we’re really allowing the even the idea that some people should live on the street,” said Brenda Siegel, an avid advocate for strong social policy and a former gubernatorial candidate. 

The Problem

Eberle suggests that  good solutions around the world contradict the American way. “Maybe instead of innovation, we need to copy other successful models from around the world to solve this issue. Sometimes a lot of the stuff has already been solved. Other places have really promising models and we can just cut and paste them here. But often we won’t,” said Eberle.

 

Currently, all that the state and municipalities offer is mass housing/shelters, which are often crowded. . “Everyone should have shelter. I think it’s really important.The state needs to do everything we can to provide access. Appropriate shelter, not just mass congregate shelter,” said Represenative Ela Chapin (D).

 

Federal and state governments had intentions to house those who needed housing, however, they really didn’t think of a long-term plan, seeing that this was a COVID-era program. “But as that federal money has gone away, we have seen a mass on housing, and because there has not been an adequate plan to ramp down that motel program and we’re seeing a ton of suffering,” Representative Caleb Elder (D) Addison-4 said. “I think the problem with this government’s approach is they let the bulk of federal money run out and then realized we don’t have a plan.”


A lack of funding, a lack of direct planning, and a lack of leadership has further contributed to the issues Vermont faces today. Federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that became available during Covid, were never intended to be a forever solution and some in Montpelier wish that others would of seen that sooner, “I think that we could see that that pot of money would run out, and it was incumbent on us to have a plan to exit those individuals at a rate with which they could receive the services from that coordinated entry program to get into the next spot they need,” said Elder.

Covid-19

The COVID-19 pandemic became a catalyst for what was to come. Also, due to other factors, Vermonters lost their jobs and couldn’t keep up, wages grew but hours became scarce, lowering the purchasing power of Vermonters. Rents also got jacked up at the same time.  “So if you’re earning, let’s say $24,000 a year, and even if your apartment costs $1000 – which is not easy, in fact, it’s quite difficult to find something [even] for $2000 – then half of your income is just going for that apartment,” said Rick DeAngelis, co executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven in Berlin, VT. 

 

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislature in Montpelier started housing programs to get the ever-increasing homeless population into units. “Over the past three, four years, we’ve known that this hasn’t been a sort of forever system,” said Eberle. 

 

As a the COVID-19 pandemic continued to progress, individuals and families from other states set out to find refuge in states like Vermont. This doesn’t even take into account that Vermont is a place that many people aspire to retire in. “We are living here in Central Vermont, in one of the tighter housing markets in the United States,” said DeAngelis.

 

Housing, or the lack thereof, has been a main root cause of homelessness. “With all of our federal money we got from the COVID era, we’ve invested maybe $400 million of public money to create housing,” said Nate Formalarie, the Deputy Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing & Community development.

 

The Good Samaritan Haven/Photo from Rick DeAngelis of GSH

 

Solutions

Representative Dane Whitman (D) of Bennington-2 grew up with family members who have struggled with substance abuse. He has seen firsthand how addiction can take over someone and he proposes ways that the State could deal with addiction. “One thing I’m really interested in actually is recovery housing. For people who are dealing with an addiction with alcohol or other drugs and substances,” said Rep. Whitman. “So it’s good to see but I saw what a big impact recovery housing had for him.”

 

Many Vermont organizations seek to put up housing and pay for people’s accommodations, including The Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, Berlin, and Montpelier. “We espouse economic justice for people so that everybody has a fair chance and has a fair shake to get the basic things that we all need. We want to make sure that the state is planning for that and doing all that it can to promote that,” said Rick DeAngelis, co director of the Good Samaritan Haven. 

 

While some credit Governor Scott and his administration for their ability to aid in this issue, they are hesitant on other factors of his plans, “thank goodness, the administration was able to get those hotel rates down from around an average of $169 down to 0 a night. But, it’s still an expensive program,” said Rep. Dennis Labounty (D) Caledonia-3. On a more small and local scale, cities within Vermont have continuously tried to find ways to benefit from the Biden Administration’s Covid bills. “I was the chair of the homelessness task force for the city of Montpelier. They set aside $4,000 in funding, which was Biden COVID money, which is probably going to go to a homeless shelter in Montpelier,” said Kenneth Russell, an East Montpelier, VT resident and executive director of Another Way in Montpelier. 

 

The Vermont House of Representatives passed H.829 in the just competed legislative session. The bill proposed to increase taxes on Vermont’s top 1%, making $500,000, and/or, for those who can afford a $750,000 house. “I think that people who make that level of income can afford to pay more. And that’s part of how we build that revenue, to be able to fund the things that we need,” said Siegel. 

 

Issues that have arisen

There’s an old saying that “the private sector does as good of a job as the government, cheaper and more efficiently,” but some suggest that that may not be true. With record high demand recently and increasing cost among things such as regulations, it is costly to build. LaBounty said that “a new two bedroom home, with 1,300 sq ft, [costs]  about $500,000 to build.” Also, he said that,”we’ve also been hearing from builders that they can’t keep up with [demand].”

 

Funding seems to be a dominant reason for the issues with constructing and eliminating homelessness within our state. The House bill (H.829) puts some funds in, but not enough according to Rep. Elder. “The funding numbers are not impressive for FY25. We’re talking about $17.5 million. That’s in the current bill, H.829, it’s not enough money.”

 

Some people suggest that Governor Scott and his administration are not doing what is needed to solve the problem, going as far to say that they are just trying to get around it.“ Though there are multiple plans out there, they’re just not coming from the administration. And the problem is that the administration does not want to spend money on this issue,” said Siegel. “it’s hard to imagine that he actually cares about this and doesn’t just want an opportunity to complain about the legislature.”

 

Siegel remains critical of the Scott administration and its ability to solve the lingering homelessness crisis. She claims that the Act 250 Office – the office responsible for overseeing Act 250, which regulates development in the state – is not fully staffed. “So the first thing that the governor should do is staff the office. I mean, he is intentionally not staffing the office, and then that slows down the ability to get those permits.”

 

Governor Phil Scott is known for being a businessman, and Siegel remains critical of him and his beliefs, “If you’re a business person, then you understand that you have to make initial investments. If you buy a car on a loan, it costs you more money over time, if you buy a car outright and possibly cost you less money. So we have to figure out a way to be able to buy our car outright, so to speak,” said Siegel. “He is supposed to be a good business person. He could have negotiated better deals, and we could have directed this money in better ways,” said Russell of Another Way.  

 

Housing is a pressing issue that many in Montpelier want to solve, however, there are some costs that would come with it, especially with the end of ARPA funds. Many fiscal conservatives in Montpelier want to take a step back, “There’s a lot of new expenses and funded by some new taxes so believers live within our means to the best we can,” said Rep. JIm Harrison (R) of Rutland-11. “But I don’t think there’s any magic wand that we can just say, Okay, here’s another $100 million dollars because we got to figure out a way to do it.”

 

Rep. Whitman highlights his hardest task. ”I think one of the tricky things is: what do you prioritize? We can put [homelessness] on the line this year. But then, what about next year, the year after that? So part of it’s like a sustainable long term plan.”

 

Representatives in Montpelier have tried to get proposals to become law, but when it passes the Senate or the House of Representatives, either the governor or an outside third party disapproves. “In many ways when the legislature says we need to do something it’s in the Budget Adjustment Act and then the Department for Children and Families or whoever does not act appropriately. I think that’s a real concern,” said Jonathan Williams (D) of Washington-3.

 

The question eventually arises, how do we pay for this? Many representatives in Montpelier agree that the Legislature should continue to raise taxes on the top 1% of Vermonters, because and the Legislature is proposing budgets it can’t sustain. “I do also agree with Representative Scott Beck (R), Caledonia-3 that to a degree we have a spending problem. And so we’ve got to be more efficient with our solutions and the money we spend,” said Elder. “Now I would say that I will not support raising taxes on working class Vermonters. The tax packages that are out there that I’m considering are on folks who have a greater ability to pay.”

 

These proposals are happening now, however, they may take years to come to fruition. ”Yes, we funded a bill that does not send a lot of money this year, but may send more than other  years to the Vermont Housing cConservation Board in what I would consider the most comprehensive proposal we’ve seen, which is a variety of creating permanently affordable housing, as well,” said Elder.

 

Time, money, and resources seems to be insufficient according to Eberle, “A lot of it has to do with things that are available both in terms of dollars. And staff time and it’s hard to handle this on the municipal level as a town or city without sufficient state support and it’s hard for a state to provide that kind of support without sufficient federal support.” 

 

Many Vermonters believe that funds ARPA and the Cares Act could’ve been allocated better. “I mean, the motel housing program has been very expensive. It’s a shame that more leadership was not taken to build more units,” said Russell. The incorrect allocation of funds not only didn’t solve the issue, but also made people wonder, what’s next? “You know that federal money has run out, and the state doesn’t necessarily have the resources to keep funding,” said Nate Formalarie, the Deputy Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing & Community development. 

 

Some believe that we may be putting the wrong thinking into this issue, “I feel like it’s a matter of our emotional capacity to figure out solutions for all these folks. It’s a challenge to some of our fundamental values about making sure that everybody in our communities are taken care of,”said Russell. 

 

What has Gov. Scott Done?

 

Phil Scott, Governor of Vermont / Photo from Republican Governors Association

 

Siegel proposes that governor Scott just wants to continue to dodge the real issues.”But a lot of what he’s done has actually been around regulatory reform or around things that aren’t going to build new houses and aren’t going to reach low income or people experiencing homelessness,”  she said, “He is not asking for significant or adequate funding for housing builds or for keeping people sheltered.”

 

Some representatives in Montpelier agree with Governor Scott and want to make things less restrictive. “But I think there’s no question that what we need is both state funding to fund affordable housing and I’m gonna echo the governor here, regulatory reform, to get out of the way of folks who can build up market rate and who can build up more competitive rates because we simply regulatory reform is not all the answer,” said Elder. “But I also believe that we can’t just do it with subsidized housing. We’ve got to make it easier for all kinds of different folks to build.”

 

Some, however, propose that Governor Scott isn’t deliberately avoiding the problem but is thinking how to fix the problem without it further exacerbating and metastasizing. ”I think from the Governor’s perspective, and again, I’m not speaking for him, but putting more burden on Vermonters that are already cutting it close financially could actually impact homelessness in a negative way,” said Formalarie.

 

Positive Outcomes of These Solutions

Regardless of how people view homelessness, everyone is affected by its societal pressures. A house representative, Dennis LaBounty (D), Caledonia-3 is a bus driver when he isn’t at the Statehouse, he had a couple kids who were in the hotel, motel program. Just before Christmas the kids told LaBounty that they were going to move into a more permanent housing situation. “They were great kids and I was kind of disappointed, I was going to lose them, but I was happy they got an apartment,” LaBounty said. Fortunately, they moved on the other side of town and he got to still see them. 

 

The hotel, and motel program was a blessing in many ways, in the sense that people got the housing that they deserved and it was that first step into helping kids reimagine their lives. “A little girl was able to have a kitten which she’s been wanting for years, since she was really small,” said Rep. LaBounty.

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