Survey: Vermont homeless population increases by 9 percent


MONTPELIER -- Vermont's homeless population grew by 9 percent this year, according to a report released Wednesday by two anti-homelessness groups.

The 2014 Point-in-Time survey counted 1,556 homeless Vermonters the night of Jan. 28, including 227 people who said they were victims of domestic violence and 371 children.

Formerly homeless people and those who help the homeless Wednesday said the actual number of homeless people in the state is likely much higher.

Federal budget cuts slashed the number of Section 8 vouchers in Vermont and contributed to the rise in homelessness this year, said Jeanne Montross, co-chairwoman of the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness.

"We lost a lot of Section 8 vouchers due to sequestration," Montross said.

The number of people who have lost homes as a result of domestic violence is disturbing, Montross said, especially because that number does not count children.

"When we think about children who have witnessed domestic violence and then they are homeless, you put those two things together and the trauma to that child is huge," she said.

The survey found 166 people living outdoors or in places unfit for human habitation, an increase of 58 percent from 2013.

That number surprised Montross, who said there were new cold weather shelters this year.

The Chittenden County Continuum of Care, which covers the state's most populous county, along with the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness, which covers the rest of the state, released the survey.

It was performed via volunteers across the state who interviewed homeless people on the same night.

The full survey report includes more specific data about the number of people chronically homeless versus those using motel vouchers. It also includes the number of homeless households versus single people as well as the number of homeless veterans and disabled people.

The report, performed annually, only includes people who meet the federal definition of homelessness. It does not count people living with friends or "precariously housed."

Some said the study failed to capture an accurate picture of homelessness in Vermont.

"It's grossly undercounted, there's way more people that are living homeless than what this report says," said Morgan Brown, a member of the Vermont Council on Homelessness.

The report uses a definition of homelessness that is too narrow and doesn't count people who live in hotels on their own dime or people who double up with friends, he said.

Brown said over the course of the 12-year period he was homeless the survey never counted him.

Thirty-five percent of the state's homeless people live in Chittenden County, according to the survey. Ten percent are located in Rutland.

The cost of housing causes many people to become homeless, said Rita Markley, executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter, a Burlington shelter.

"The fundamental challenge is that wages for many Vermonters are still low. They're flat or falling. And housing costs are extraordinarily high," Markley said.

New state and private programs to prevent homelessness are effective but they it will take time for these efforts to affect the data, she said.

Markley also said the number of homeless in Vermont is likely higher than 1,556.

"We need to invest in more affordable housing, we need to attract higher wage jobs, and we need to support and increase the homelessness prevention resources," she said.

In Brattleboro, Josh Davis, the executive director of Morningside Shelter, said over the past three or four years he has seen an increased need for overnight shelter.

"Unfortunately, it seems like that's the trend in Vermont right now."

Currently, Morningside, which supplies temporary housing to those without homes, has a waiting list of 36 households, or more than 72 people. And the Overflow Shelter, which is operated by the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center at the First Baptist Church on Main Street in Brattleboro and is staying open until May 1 this year, has hosted on average 30 people a night.

In 2013 in Windham County, the point-in-time survey counted 126 homeless people. In 2014, that number increased to 170 people.

"Our most dramatic increase over the past few years has been in families without homes," said Davis. "One third of all the people we serve are children. It's difficult for adults, but really traumatic for children."

People who are waiting for shelter at Morningside or can't find permanent housing are staying in hotels and tents, sleeping in cars or living off the generosity of family and friends, said Davis.

"Homelessness is a complex issue. It's hard to narrow the cause down to one specific thing. There are a multitude of factors that lead to homelessness. Some folks are out of work or are not making enough money to support their housing costs. We also see the effects of substance abuse and untreated and undiagnosed mental health issues. It can be a combination of all of those."

Davis said once a person is homeless, it can be hard to find replacement housing in a timely manner.

"Affordable housing is scarce and there's a lot of competition. It makes a case manager's job hard."

Morningside and the Drop In Center are always looking for help, said Davis. To find out if your skills fit their needs, call the shelter at 802-257-0066 or the Drop In Center at 802-257-5415. And, of course, both organizations can use monetary donations at any time.

Whitney Nichols, a formerly homeless man who now serves on the Statewide Independent Living Council and the Governor's Council on Pathways from Poverty, said formerly homeless people should share their experiences and point out that there is hope.

"We can help one another to get through some of these difficult times," he said.

Two other recent reports also showed an increase in the number of homeless people in Vermont.

Vermont has seen a 62 percent increase in shelter use since 2009, according to the One Night Shelter Count, released in December by the Office of Economic Opportunity.

That report also found a 7 percent increase from the prior year in emergency shelter use and a 14 percent increase in transitional housing use.

The number of homeless students in Vermont is also growing, according to an October report from the U.S. Department of Education.

That report found that from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2012, Vermont's homeless student population grew by 35 percent, one of the sharpest increases in the country.

In the 2011-2012, there were 1,202 homeless students, according to the report.

The findings help the two Continuums of Care apply for grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and also help inform local and state groups about the status of homeless Vermonters.

Reformer day editor Bob Audette contributed to this report.


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