BENNINGTON — An annual statewide count shows the number of homeless people in Bennington grew by 15 percent to 88 people at the start of the year. After the coronavirus pandemic struck, almost twice as many were being housed by the state in motels.
The Point-in-Time Count, conducted within one day each January, saw 1,110 Vermonters in 821 households experiencing homelessness this year. In the town of Bennington, there were 88 homeless people in 53 households; last year, there were 77 people in 50 households.
The yearly count is meant to provide a snapshot of homelessness in Vermont — people who had no shelter, as well as those living in emergency shelters, motels or hotels paid by others and transitional housing for the homeless.
This year, 11 of Bennington's homeless households had children, according to survey data released Friday.
The biggest age group, composed of 41 people, were 25-54 years old. The next largest was the youth: 25 minors.
Half of the homeless people reported chronic health conditions: 18 had "severe and persistent" mental health issues; 17 had long-term physical disability; and nine had a drug and/or alcohol problem.
Twenty-four households were homeless for the first time, whereas eight were chronically homeless.
"A critical takeaway is that homelessness remains a tremendous issue impacting many in our state and in our community," said Stephannie Peters, executive director of the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, which runs the homeless shelter in town. BCCH is a local partner of the homeless count's lead organizers, the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness and Chittenden County Homeless Alliance.
The biggest factors contributing to homelessness in Bennington, Peters said, are the shortage of affordable housing and the often long wait times for housing vouchers under various rental assistance programs.
But homelessness "is much more complex than a need for housing," she said, explaining that other factors also come into play like adequate financial assistance, support for tenancy issues and eviction prevention, as well as mental health and substance abuse services.
In late May — about two months after the novel coronavirus struck Vermont — the people involved in the annual homeless count found that 1,489 people were receiving state-sponsored motel vouchers due to homelessness.
Because of the need for social distancing during the pandemic, motel vouchers were used to relocate some people living in homeless shelters. At the same time, the vouchers continued to be given to folks needing emergency shelter, such as those escaping domestic violence and whose home burned in a fire.
It's unclear how many people are currently homeless in Bennington. People receiving the motel vouchers may not include those living in tents or those who haven't reached out for housing assistance, said Renee Weeks, co-chairwoman of the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness.
Local providers of housing assistance say it's hard to tell right now how the coronavirus pandemic will affect homelessness in Bennington over the long run. But the economic fallout from the pandemic will likely hit those who are already financially vulnerable.
"Often, the ability to withstand periods of unemployment or underemployment depends upon adequate savings or other financial resources," said Elizabeth Eddy, community services director at BROC Community Action, which offers housing placement services in Bennington. "But some lower income workers do not have such a cushion."
The local housing groups said they will continue to collaborate with various partners, including the state, to meet the challenges of homelessness.
Contact Tiffany Tan at firstname.lastname@example.org or @tiffgtan on Facebook and Twitter.