‘You have no idea how much damage this does to people’

One Vermonter testifies to state lawmakers about his journey through the systems that are intended to help people experiencing homelessness but end up letting them down again and again. And his is a success story.

BRISTOL — I was born in Burlington and raised in Chittenden County. I graduated high school in Essex Junction, and then graduated with an associate's degree from Champlain College.

I have worked in retail, in home health care, as a contractor for the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service, and ultimately as an occupancy analyst for JPMorgan Chase.

I am a son, a brother, an uncle, and a friend to many. I am a writer, an artist, a nerd, and a novice ukulele player.

From late October 2020 through mid-August 2021 I lived at the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes. This was followed by two years in transitional housing, through the single-room occupancy (SRO) program, from August 2021 until Sept. 1, when I successfully leased a newly built apartment in Bristol.

At the time I entered the shelter, I believed that this was the lowest point in my life. Boy, was I wrong.

Just prior to entering the shelter, an acquaintance of a good friend, familiar with the system, helped me start the mountain of paperwork required to acquire services. The plan prior to moving into the shelter was that this acquaintance would run point (volunteering her time), and the shelter staff would provide support.

That did not happen.

After a week I was essentially ghosted, and the paperwork we filled out was never submitted. After wasting two months, it was finally cleared up, and I had to start from scratch.

This also began the process of regular changes with service coordinators. If you count the initial advocate, I'm now on number 11 (in three years). This is not unique for people experiencing homelessness.

* * *

Around that same time, I began to try to access the federal government's Lifeline Program for free cell phone service for low-income consumers. Vermont is serviced by Q Link. Their actions forced me to go without a phone for months, and they wouldn't help me when I didn't have coverage. This took close to six months to resolve - a huge barrier to keeping up with appointments and services.

In late January/early February 2021, I was presented with the opportunity to participate in the SRO program, which provides a path to obtaining a Housing Choice (Section 8) voucher.

This would be my first experience with filling out Vermont State Housing Authority (VSHA) paperwork. I filled out the 20-plus-page application and provided financial information as requested. In April I was asked to refresh the financial information - which included filling out the application, in full, for a second time.

About two months later, I heard back that I was accepted into the program. The lack of time frames and communication was problematic, let alone the time it took.

When months go by, it's easy for depression, doubt, despair, and hopelessness to set in.

The system has let us down so many times, so why should we believe it wouldn't do so again?

* * *

I said earlier that I thought moving into the shelter was the lowest point in my life. I was wrong. That would be Aug 25, 2021, the day of my disability hearing and my move to my SRO unit.

The hearing was grueling because your life is laid bare for people to sift through and confirm all the worst things about your life, while others are actively trying to deny you assistance.

This experience nearly broke me.

I was then unceremoniously moved to my SRO unit, without contact from any of my support network for several days.

These were people I had depended on, who knew how hard this was for me, who knew how poor my health was, who understood my limited ability to get around. I thought I had built connections with them. I was left to flounder for several days.

Thankfully, I got through the initial move-in period.

I could go on about various programs that were supposed to help with one thing or another (for example, furniture) but fell short. I did receive VERAP (Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program) approval, and ultimately I was fortunate with the decision on my disability case. But with a favorable decision, came losing some benefits. The Fed giveth, and the state taketh away.

I was able to keep Medicaid during the Covid emergency order; it helped greatly with covering my many medications, counseling appointments, physical therapy, and durable medical equipment.

I have now received notice that I am losing Medicaid at the end of October. I am concerned what effect this will have on my health care. The copays for counseling alone will likely force me to go less often. Additionally, in losing Medicaid, I will no longer be eligible for phone service through the Lifeline Program.

* * *

Over the course of the next two years, while trying to get my life back on track, every few months it seemed like some agency or another needed paperwork filled out.

Someone actually needs to read through the questions on these forms, because many are often unclear. They can be so confusing that even service coordinators get them wrong or are stumped by them. Meanwhile, the applicant is worried that one wrong answer can get them dropped from a program and will face the long wait to possibly get benefits restored.

This is made even worse by the unrealistic turnaround request times. If I never see another 10-day required response request, it will be too soon. That's received, not postmarked. The request often shows up 4 days after it's dated/printed, which gives a person roughly 24 to 48 hours to gather the info and get it back into the mail.

Service coordinators are rarely available to meet on such short notice, due to their caseloads, and if multiple clients receive the same requests, somebody gets left in the cold.

The fear/stress/panic/anxiety that this evokes in the many, many clients who struggle with mental illness echoes for days and weeks. Trust me, you have no idea how much damage this does to people. It's especially insulting when the response packet then sits on a desk for weeks or even months.

This is not acceptable. It is an area that I hope the Legislature will look at.

* * *

I am successfully housed as of September, but my Section 8 voucher almost didn't get extended. For those unfamiliar with the SRO program, a person accepted into the program spends a year in a transitional living space, and at the end of one year, if they are in good standing, they become eligible for Section 8. Currently, this program is the only clear path for many to receive assistance and is available only in limited places.

At the end of my year, I was deemed no longer eligible for the subsidy at the location I was living. I could stay there paying full rent on the space, but VSHA would provide no assistance.

I was also informed that I would have only six months to use the Section 8 voucher or I would lose it. In other words, I was treated like, if I didn't find a place, I was doing something wrong.

Anyone familiar with the housing situation in Vermont knows how limited the supply is, how high the rents are, and how dire the situation truly is. I conducted my search, but was having very little success in this effort. In November 2022, via my service coordinator (number 9, for those keeping track), I began to reach out to VSHA to make a six-month extension process easier. That period was set to end Jan 30, 2023.

We reached out five times before receiving a brief response asking who this request was for - even though my name was clearly provided multiple times.

The holidays occurred, after which we reached out five more times before the deadline. We reached out eight more times before getting a response in late March.

In April I received a letter telling me I was terminated from the program due to inactivity, but I could request an appeal.

I requested an appeal, only to follow up with VSHA to have them tell me they felt a hearing was unnecessary unless my financial situation had changed.

I then had to fire back that they kept dodging my questions, that I had spent months trying to get answers, that they kept referencing stuff I already knew, and that if a hearing was the only way to get heard, then I demanded one. VSHA reluctantly agreed to have a hearing.

Prior to the hearing, I provided them with cell phone call logs (date/number/time) and all email correspondence. Then, 15 minutes before the hearing, I received a hearing cancellation notice and an email with a soft apology, reinstating me back into the program.

They need me to provide updated financials and fill out of another 20-plus-page questionnaire.

* * *

I want to be clear: This is not an uncommon story. If I didn't keep fighting and keep those records, I might not be housed today.

How is someone going through their worst days facing challenges - whether it's substance-use disorder, trauma, or mental health roadblocks, or whether their service coordinators are not bringing their A game - going to get the help they need?

And why are people who are experiencing this always held to a higher standard than providers, state agencies, and others? They can miss deadlines. We cannot. They can lose paperwork. We cannot.

I've somehow made it through. Mine is a success story. I don't know the stories of the speakers testifying on this issue, but I find it disheartening that there are only two people with lived experience speaking today and that we were each given so little time.

The problem is not going away. It cannot be ignored. I came today to try to bookend this chapter in my life, give it some meaning, while I figure what comes next. If able, I'd like to return in some capacity to being a productive member of society.

I look to add many other titles to my personal resume. I hope sharing my experiences today land in the ears of those that need to hear it. That instead of pulling up the ladder behind me, the process gets smoother and less painful for those who still have nowhere to go.

I appreciate your time. Thank you.

Bryan Plant II gave this testimony on Oct. 5 to a joint hearing of the House Committee on Human Services and Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, as the two committees met to evaluate Act 81 as proscribed by the law that retroactively saved the state's emergency motel housing program.

This Voices Primary Sources was submitted to The Commons.

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