A thin safety net

Across the nation, a growing divide creates an environment of economic instability

Local and regional challenges with homelessness reflect a national problem - one that is a symptom of decades of national economic trends and policies that hit people and communities locally.

Megan Hustings, interim director of the Washington, D.C.–based National Coalition for the Homeless, believes that the problem starts with the huge gap between income and housing costs that has increased over the past several decades.

“There's no city in the country [...] where you can actually work 40 hours at the federal minimum wage and be able to afford housing at 30 percent of your income,” Hustings said.

According to regional data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a worker in Windham County earning minimum wage ($10.78 per hour) would need to work 57 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

Nationally, Hustings said the NLIHC reports that a worker on average must earn $20 per hour to afford fair-market rent on an apartment.

“Our wages have not kept up with inflation, with the cost of housing, or with the overall cost of living,” Hustings said. Minimum-wage work does not pay for the things that you need to afford. The average age of a minimum-wage worker is 36.”

“Being poor is not fun,” said Hustings, describing the bureaucratic challenge of surviving on a low income. “We've created all these policies; you're not just getting free handouts from the government. “

Hustings described how the current era of homelessness began through policy decisions made four decades ago, especially with what she called “massive” cuts made to the federal affordable housing program - cuts that have never been restored to previous levels.

“We've seen a huge loss of public housing units and other regular affordable units over the last 30 to 40 years,” Hustings said.

President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which put strict time limits on welfare, instituted work requirements, and gave states more freedom to adapt or constrain programs.

“Speaking to the policy piece, I would say that the welfare reform of 1996 almost singlehandedly caused family homelessness, and other policies like this have led us to this point,” Hustings said.

“The income inequality in this country is stark, where you have lowest-wage workers who are not making enough to survive,” Hustings said.

“Talking about the panhandlers, that's not easy work,” said Hustings, looking through a national lens. “You are out in the elements, you probably have people speaking to you negatively all the time, it's dangerous. Some people are more successful than others.”

Discussing the way in which many people who are homeless or dislocated have some forms of support, Hustings emphasized how thin the safety net has become for people who have no means - and how bureaucratic its requirements can be.

She said there is a presumption that all of these programs are out there because “we want to make sure that our citizens can not only survive, but just live” - to provide basic human necessities like housing, food, and health care.

“How can that be a bad thing?” she said.

Hustings said the work requirements have emerged over the years “because there's this myth that people who are able bodied who could get a job are just milking the government for benefits,” said Hustings.

She calls that “a myth” and says that in “the vast majority of cases, this is not true.”

Moreover, “Work requirements add bureaucracy, they can be very confusing,” Hustings said. “There's a lot of documentation that has to happen, even for somebody who is actually looking for work or who is able to obtain work here and there.”

“It's already a lot of work to find a job, but to have to check in constantly because the government doesn't believe that you're not milking it is ridiculous.”

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Brattleboro's challenges with homelessness exist within a national economic system that has tilted increasingly toward haves and have-nots.

According to a 2018 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “The years from the end of World War II into the 1970s were ones of substantial economic growth and broadly shared prosperity.” The organization writes that incomes “grew rapidly and at roughly the same rate up and down the income ladder, roughly doubling in inflation-adjusted terms between the late 1940s and early 1970s.”

But beginning in the 1970s, “Income growth for households in the middle and lower parts of the distribution slowed sharply, while incomes at the top continued to grow strongly,” the researchers write.

And, they continue, “The concentration of income at the very top of the distribution rose to levels last seen 90 years ago (during the “Roaring Twenties.”)

Meanwhile, those high earners have been able to squirrel away and accumulate unprecedented wealth.

Those same trends come sharply into focus on the local level in the profiles painted by data from the U.S. Census:

• The number of families in Windham County with household incomes below $10,000 per year rose 45 percent from 2010 to 2017 (from 341 households to 493).

• At the same time, the number of households making at least $200,000 per year rose 65 percent (from 356 to 586).

• In 2017, 9.9 percent of the 11,151 families in Windham County lived below the federal poverty level. That's up from 6.3 percent in 2010.

• In 2017, 3,666 people in Windham County were living below the federal poverty level - and 51.4 percent of them were working.

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Brattleboro also does not yet have to deal with the surge of homelessness that has struck many major cities.

According to 2018 statistics reported in Forbes, 5 percent of New York City's 78,000 homeless residents were unsheltered. But of Los Angeles County's 60,000 people without homes, about 75 percent of them live on the streets - a figure that increased 12 percent in a year.

On the West Coast, the question of homelessness has been made even more complex by a recent Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that essentially invalidated local ordinances against camping on public land unless the municipality has sufficient homeless-housing capacity to assure that no one would be forced to sleep outside in violation of the law.

Similar lawsuits, including one from the ACLU against the city of Burlington, are headed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Vermont, Connecticut, and New York.

According to Brattleboro's town ordinances, “No person shall camp on any public lands or in any public park in the Town of Brattleboro unless camping on public lands or in that park is authorized by the Town Manager or Department of Recreation and Parks Director.”

The reality of insufficient housing and shelter forcing many homeless people to camp outside in the summer is dealt with by a close alliance between the local homeless shelter, Groundworks Collaborative, and the Brattleboro Police Department.

People camping out in spaces perceived to be inappropriate are dealt with by the police and Groundworks staff, and no one has been arrested for sleeping outdoors on public land for at least two years.

A workable but uneasy solution - but one that might not withstand constitutional scrutiny in years to come.

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