"One doesn't always recover, one survives," says Morgan Brown, a formerly homeless man who advocates for other Vermonters struggling to find and keep housing.
Speaking with tears in his eyes to a group assembled on the Statehouse steps Thursday to commemorate Homelessness Awareness Day, Brown shared his experience of privation as a child, watching his mother suffer in a domestic abuse situation and the off-and-on homelessness that has punctuated his life since age 17.
"My last go-around was 12 years. It's not by choice," he said, "I tried my best. No one, for better or worse, gets where they're at on their own."
"To be able to speak"
Through much of the vigil, Brown stood behind the politicians, service providers and advocates holding a sign that read "What needs redistribution is political power." When it was his turn to speak, he reminded the gathering that "Programs and funding are important, but what people need most is to be able to speak and represent themselves."
Angus Chaney, director of housing for the Agency of Human Services, said he's often asked how many homeless people there are in Vermont.
"The answer, which doesn't need any caveats and which has been true for a number of decades, is too many," Chaney said.
Homelessness is the result of economic pressures like income inequality and the "obscene" disparity between people's paychecks and the cost of housing, Chaney said. Those pressures become enmeshed with families' more personal struggles with addiction, illness, trauma, job loss and other crises.
"For over 30 years Vermont's response to helping people with emergency housing needs was a motel," said Dave Yacavone, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, "Thank you all for your advocacy, for reaching out to your neighbors and spreading the word that our response has to be different than simply offering someone a motel."
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said housing is a human right that, in a country as wealthy as the U.S., no one should be without. Smith called for investments in the people and infrastructure that will bring good jobs, education and housing opportunities.
His chamber passed a concurrent resolution later Thursday officially recognizing Jan. 9 as Homelessness Awareness Day.
Testifying before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Thursday morning, Linda Ryan, director of Samaritan House in St. Albans and co-chair of the governor's recently formed poverty council, urged lawmakers to adopt its recommendations.
"It's a good chance to take a holistic look at how we can put a dent in poverty," Ryan said.
Her shelter has seen a jump in the number of bed-nights - the total number of beds occupied - in the past year, from 3,500 to 5,100. A steep increase in the number of families seeking shelter is also troubling, Ryan said.
"Quite a few people who are currently homeless thought that they might come and speak today," said Lauren Sales with Another Way, a community center offering alternative mental health services in Montpelier. "It occurs to me that they would have to miss their one meal of the day and stand out in the cold to do that."
Hunger and homelessness are inseparable, Sales said, and she thanked Vermont's soup kitchens for their work helping people survive.
She echoed Brown's call for greater involvement of homeless and formerly homeless people in policy decisions, saying that the people who have been there and triumphed are an essential source of wisdom in finding solutions.