BRATTLEBORO—The annual Point-In-Time count of homeless people in Vermont came with good news: the state saw a 28 percent drop in homelessness.
The state also experienced a 25 percent decrease in chronic — 12 months or more without stable housing — homelessness. The number of people homeless because of domestic violence fell by 10 percent compared with the previous year.
Another bit of news worth celebrating is data showing a 22 percent drop in the number of homeless families compared with the previous year.
The Point-In-Time count represents a snap-shot of the number of homeless Vermonters. The state uses the information as a pulse check and in its funding applications to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The unduplicated count doesn’t capture every Vermonter experiencing unstable living conditions.
Of the 1,102 people counted on the night of Jan. 26, volunteers counted 114 Windham County residents. Windham County ranked fifth, behind Chittenden, Rutland, Washington, and Windsor counties.
A total of 1,523 people were counted last year. The current Point-In-Time report lists total counts starting in 2012. That year, the number of people counted was 1,160. The number peaked at 1,559 in 2014.
The majority of people counted in 2016 stayed in emergency shelters (659) and pointed to mental illness (316), domestic violence (230), and substance abuse (212) as the top reasons contributing to their lack of housing, according to the report. The report writers noted that some people pointed to a combination of causes.
The Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness and Chittenden County Homeless Alliance authored the 2016 report.
The first reaction to the report by Joshua Davis, executive director of Brattleboro-based Groundworks, was generally positive.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Davis said.
Groundworks’ experience echoed many of the findings in the Point-In-Time report.
Last year, said Davis, the organization helped house 40 households. Many of the people Groundworks worked with came to the organization through the emergency seasonal shelter at the First Baptist Church on Main Street, or the Groundworks Drop In Center on South Main Street.
For the first time in four years since joining Groundworks, Davis has seen fewer families.
Davis said Vermont in general, and Windham County organizations specifically, have adopted the housing-first model that has received acclaim in other states like Utah. The idea behind the program: house people first. Then surround them with the services and programs they need.
“Quite frankly, it’s more humane,” he said.
The model includes a “three-legged stool” of affordable housing, rental subsidies, and on-site supportive services.
“It works,” he said.
According to Davis, the housing-retention rates among people he works with are strong. Of the 40 households Groundworks supports, Davis estimates 38 have maintained stable housing.
Groundworks participated last year in launching pilot programs to divert people from the state’s Agency of Human Services’ emergency hotel program into other forms of transitional housing.
The AHS motel program costs the state approximately $4 million annually, Davis said. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of these funds came to Windham County.
In an effort to reduce costs, Groundworks received funds from the state to lease three apartments in Brattleboro. The organization leased one with the second apartment to open soon.
Groundworks may not lease the third apartment, however, because the number of people using the hotel program has dropped, Davis said.
“It’s huge and we don’t know why,” he said.
The apartments are cheaper per night than hotel rooms, Davis said. They also provide a home-like experience for clients rather than the temporary and transient experience of living in a hotel room.
Groundworks and other organizations, such as Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), coordinate services and case-management programs that to provide 360-degree support for people seeking stable housing.
Davis offers a few caveats to the Point-In-Time report.
The report doesn’t include everyone, Davis said.
For example, counters on Jan. 26, may not have gone far afield, like into the woods, to count people, he said. The federal government’s definition of chronic homelessness is narrow. The definition itself leaves many people out, like those who are couch surfing or doubling up in apartments.
While it’s great to see fewer families, he said, Groundworks staff are seeing more individuals seeking services.
Groundworks typically serves about 30 households (defined as one or more people), Davis said. An additional 10 to 15 households sit on the organization’s wait-list.
Historically, these households were mostly families with children, he continued. Now, more of the households are one or two adults.
In Davis’ opinion, the way the community talks about homelessness may also exacerbate the problem.
“We really load that term up,” he said.
“It’s a temporary situation where someone doesn’t have a home,” Davis continued, yet communities talk about homelessness like it’s a permanent condition.
Related feelings of judgement and shame may prevent people from reaching out for support before an uncertain housing situation becomes an unstable housing crisis, he said.
“We want to keep people in housing as much as we can,” Davis said.
Sara Kobylenski, Executive Director of Upper Valley Haven, echoed Davis.
Groundworks staff consider the Haven, based in White River Junction, its sister organization.
Kobylenski said she felt “cautiously optimistic” about the data in the Point-In-Time report.
The Haven housed more people last year compared with other years, she said.
She also pointed to the three-legged stool of bricks-and-mortar affordable housing, rental subsidies, and supportive services as key to housing people quickly and keeping them housed.
Thanks to the state’s focus on reducing homelessness among families and veterans, Kobylenski said she has seen an increase in housing of these populations.
The state invested more funding into services and subsidies in recent years, Kobylenski said. Physical housing is more challenging especially in White River Junction, and Windham and Rutland counties.
These areas have insufficient housing stock, she said. In tight rental markets, even substandard housing commands a premium. The most vulnerable residents fall out the bottom.
According to Kobylenski, a healthy rental market has a 5 percent vacancy rate. White River Junction’s rate is less than 2 percent. In Brattleboro, she said, the rate is less than 1 percent.
Unfortunately, like Groundworks, Kobylenski is seeing more single people with mental health issues on Haven’s roster.
Kobylenski said Vermont isn’t alone when it comes to a sluggish economy, people struggling with significant mental health issues, or the other multiple factors that can lead to homelessness.
The Point-In-Time report also noted that 317 households — 47 percent of those counted — in January identified as being homeless for the first time.
When asked if she found this significant, Kobylenski responded, “We’re all looking at that number.”
Vermonters can celebrate the good news that efforts have helped reduce chronic homelessness, she said. The bad news is that 47 percent of those counted were newly homeless.
“Our economy is still not working for many people,” Kobylenski said. “And it’s not working for a new cohort of people.”