BENNINGTON — The Bennington homelessness crisis didn’t happen overnight. Solutions won’t happen any faster, either.
There are many people and organizations taking steps to make a bad situation a little better for Bennington’s homeless, looking for short and long-term solutions to keep them off the streets and ideally in secure housing.
The Banner spoke with four different organizations whose efforts go a long way in answering the question what we as a community can do to reduce and end homelessness.
Pathways Vermont, a nonprofit organization, was founded about 11 years ago as a pilot program in Chittenden County. It runs a Housing First program, which starts by initially putting people into housing, and supplying wrap-around services and support to help them in other areas of their lives that might be hampering their efforts to achieve steady housing on their own, such as substance use, mental illness or joblessness.
“So rather than those issues being something that limits opportunities for housing, the program addresses those issues once they are stable and not guessing where they’re going to sleep at night,” said Maria Moore, director of development and communications for Pathways Vermont. “It makes a big difference.”
Housing First programs in Vermont and abroad deal mainly with people who have struggled in the past with chronic homelessness. Unfortunately, such a program has not yet started in Bennington, but Pathways Vermont is actively looking for funding and hopes to bring that program to town in the near future.
“We are already on the ground in Bennington,” Moore said. “We have a good opportunity to make a real difference here very soon.”
Pathways Vermont already is working with private landlords in Bennington now on two programs to help people experiencing homelessness to find secure housing. Its Housing First program is funded through the Department of Corrections. The plan helps to relocate and secure housing for people released from the criminal justice system, so that they can reintegrate and become steady members of the community.
The second program, called rapid rehousing, deals with people who might not have had a homelessness issue long-term or haven’t dealt with mental health problems necessarily, but are in a difficult spot and need some support. As of last May, the rapid rehousing program has housed 110 people in Bennington County alone. This program is funded through CARES funds, or federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security aid, which is filtered through the state of Vermont.
When asked where Pathways Vermont is finding these housing units, Moore said, “It’s been difficult. We’ve been going out and finding these spaces, working with landlords and property owners to locate these units. We are in six counties in Vermont, so our reputation is such that these landlords are coming to understand that we will be there to help these people once they are in the units, help maintain them, offering support and services, so some of those concerns many landlords have about these things are lessened considerably.”
Shires Housing provides quality, affordable housing in Southwestern Vermont, including apartments and family homes. They are the most significant housing organization in Southwestern Vermont and work with partners to ensure that housing helps with individual and communal well-being. Shires also works with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Continuum of Care program, which helps address housing and homelessness problems with funding and other supports.
“We’ve brought 46 units online within the past two years,” said Stephanie Lane, executive director of Shires Housing in North Bennington. “We locate apartments and properties in Bennington, with funding mostly through the state, work as partners with the town, rehabbing affordable housing properties for redevelopment to meet some of the needs of the homeless here. We recently rehabbed 15 units at the Applegate Apartments. There are now formally homeless families living in those units.”
Shires finds properties that might need rehab to bring them up to code or adequate properties for new construction. Then, with the help of state and federal funding, act as the landlords of those units, connecting tenants with wrap-around services, a critical element for success for families. One of those properties is the Lake Paran Houses in North Bennington. The majority of the units are dedicated to low- to medium-income households.
They are also partnering with the Coalition for the Homeless in Bennington to build a brand-new transitional housing facility, a total of nine fully-functioning apartment units, on Pleasant Street, for families transitioning from homelessness to housing. The project looks to be completed by late summer. Shires will serve as the landlord on the project. Families can stay for 90 to 120 days, hopefully moving on to permanent housing.
“These projects, they take a long while. Sometimes it takes years to see this come from inception to completion,” Lane said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Another organization with big plans on Pleasant Street is Hale Resources, a private real estate and development company.
Some of the direct things they are doing to help the homeless population is, in partnership with NeighborWorks of Vermont, rehabbing older properties in town — 130 units so far, with a percentage of those units earmarked for homeless individuals and families.
“We rent units to those individuals, through programs like Pathways Vermont, for five years as a part of the grant money we get,” says Zak Hale, who, along with his father, runs the Hale Resources program. “We rent directly to them. Those people that are getting out of prison or without credit scores, we can’t usually rent to those people, but allowing Pathways to rent the units, allows others who wouldn’t qualify to get into those places. Pathways become the tenant. That allows us to provide those units. We also rent to a lot of Section 8 families and individuals in town.”
BROC Community Action
Tom Donahue, BROC’s chief executive officer, points to two specific programs that have made a big difference for people experiencing homelessness in Bennington County. The Rapid Resolution Housing initiative is a federally funded state program that BROC is implementing in response to COVID-19. Its purpose is to assist families with funding that gets them from homelessness into housing. The program pays for things like first and last month’s rent, utility payments and other expenses that would be a natural barrier to permanent housing for many families.
“The only criteria is being homeless,” Donahue said.
The second program, which Donahue said is just as important, is the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program, funded through the Vermont State Housing Authority. This housing stabilization program helps families stay in the houses they already have. It helps with mortgage payments that might have gone into arrears and can help with utility and tax payments, too.
“Over $3 million dollars has been distributed in Bennington so far,” Donahue said. “If these people lose their homes, it makes the problem of homelessness in Bennington that much worse.”
Collaboration, more housing needed
All of the organizations that we spoke to were asked what they think might be the answer to the problem and what a permanent solution might be to help people struggling with homelessness?
Moore: “This is going to need collaboration between different agencies in the county. Not everyone is homeless for the same reasons. Their exit from homelessness is going to vary from person to person. I think if there can be some action now, we might be able to avoid it getting worse before it gets better.”
Lane: “Dignified housing is a right for everyone. It’s crucial for health and well-being. We need more resources for these families to assist them, and get them back on their feet, and to give them a dignified place to live.”
Hale: “The only option is more housing added to the market It doesn’t have to be brand-new. There’s plenty of opportunities to transform older structures. The Catamount School, the Energizer building, are two huge buildings that are just sitting vacant right now that could be renovated into housing. Unfortunately, you’d have to put a lot of money into those projects. Then, you couldn’t charge rents that would sustain that investment. The state has to step up and assist with funds that can close the gap on those types of projects.”
Donahue: “The solution is the kind of funding of the magnitude that the governor has proposed, $100 million. The state of Vermont will have to be the driving force behind the solution. It’s going to have to take that kind of financial commitment to resolve the deficit of available housing. It will be several years in the making to resolve this.”