Pushing people back onto the street

The crisis of homelessness is still alive and well — some of us just have the ability to turn the other way and not look. Where is our state’s empathy when we are not engaged in a worldwide crisis?

One night in February 2020, a homeless man in Bennington went to sleep under a bridge. He had a voucher to spend the night in a Motel 6 miles down the road, but he didn't have a ride to get there.

It was 4 degrees outside.

Thierry Heuga died that night. The next day would have been his 58th birthday.

I mourned Thierry's shortened life, the disappearance of his laughing eyes and kind heart. I mourned this dire issue in our country and state.

Then COVID-19 hit.

When the pandemic burst into Vermont, our legislators did a wonderful thing by spending over $45 million in federal pandemic dollars to house and feed Vermont's homeless population in motels for the duration of the crisis.

Every individual and family who needed a roof over their head got a roof. Instead of people out on the cold streets during a worldwide pandemic, they were able to stay relatively safe in motels.

Sure, the program had its blemishes, but it kept thousands of Vermonters off the streets, which helped contain the virus.

Our state and our legislators should be immensely proud. Other New England states used hotels to quarantine homeless individuals, but no other state developed such a widespread program to house everyone without shelter.

Vermont created a wonderful program and simultaneously fostered the potential to find tangible solutions to homelessness.

* * *

I was filled with unprecedented hope that Vermont could and would end homelessness (to whatever extent it is possible to “end” it) due to our great response to it during the pandemic.

I envisioned Vermont legislators rolling out a huge plan to build affordable housing with American Rescue Plan dollars and to spend money on caseworkers and on food support for homeless individuals to ensure that when the motel program ended, everybody would have a home to transition into with a support net for them along the way.

Vermont was - and is - so close to this reality.

However, Gov. Scott has ended the 15-month state of emergency, meaning the motel program is coming to an end for many of the 2,000-plus individuals on July 1.

Large and much-needed amounts of money that during Covid went to food banks and support services will now be greatly minimized. Housing is not being built fast enough to meet the July deadline. According to one estimate, just 1 out of every 10 individuals leaving motel rooms will find housing.

Which means the Thierry Heugas of Vermont are going to be pushed back into the street.

* * *

This is a reality I hoped would never come to pass.

I believed in legislators who would fight for the humanity of homeless Vermonters, even when Covid wasn't as widespread.

I believed in legislators who would not stop at the motel program but would continue the vital work of providing housing for all Vermonters.

I believed that Vermont would continue to pursue solutions to this problem long after the bleak months of 2020, proving that we don't solve problems only when the world is watching.

But right now I'm worried that I was wrong.

* * *

An article in VTDigger said that homeless individuals “might be camping for the summer.” With a nonchalant shrug, Vermont has turned its back on our homeless neighbors.

That wording - “some Vermonters might be sleeping outside” - expresses a sense of passivity I didn't think Vermont had.

If we truly cared, we would make certain that nobody would ever be on the streets again who didn't want to be there. Instead, in our rush to get back to normal, Vermont has forgotten the empathy and care we extended towards one another and our most vulnerable in the midst of the crisis.

Lawmakers and the Scott administration extended empathy and care in creating the motel program, acknowledging that nobody deserved to be inhumanly sleeping outside, and dying, like Thierry Heuga.

Where is that empathy when we are not engaged in a worldwide crisis? Because the crisis of homelessness is still alive and well -- some of us just have the ability to turn the other way and not look.

* * *

I urge elected officials, state leaders, and every Vermonter to reject the status quo of accepting the sight of individuals living on the streets.

Those of us who are privileged to not experience homelessness must speak up and push for action before it's too late.

I get it: it's so easy to turn away and imagine that everything that could be done has been done. But it hasn't been done, and if we don't act we'll keep finding homeless people who have died under bridges all over the state.

I'm only 17 but have been alive long enough to at least know a little about humanity. I remember Thierry's laughing eyes and decry the stigma we place on our homeless neighbors - stigma that prompts us to turn our backs.

It's far past time to end that stigma and put a stop to the issue of homelessness. I hope our legislators don't turn their backs, because their actions will be in the eyes of history forever.

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