[Hpn] Homeless Vermonters: What Can We Do About the Growing Trend?; &, Central Vermont Food Banks; Montpelier Bridge; Week of December 6, 2007; Bi-monthly community newspaper

Morgan W. Brown morganbrown@gmail.com
Fri, 7 Dec 2007 13:44:17 -0500

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Week of December 6, 2007
Montpelier Bridge
[Montpelier, Vermont; Bi-monthly community newspaper]
Cover article(s) [not archived once new edition becomes available]
Homeless Vermonters:
What Can We Do About the Growing Trend?

by John Walters

On December 18, Vermont will take a moment to stop and recognize the
growing number of homeless in the state. The Vermont Coalition to End
Homelessness is hosting this statewide Homeless Recognition Day to
draw attention to the increasing numbers of homeless in the state. The
day begins at Bethany Church in Montpelier at 9:30 a.m. with a meeting
of the coalition and then continues at 11:30 a.m. with a homeless
vigil at which Governor Douglas and others will speak.
What is driving this increase in the numbers of homeless Vermonters?
"Shelters are becoming the housing for the working poor," said Todd
Bailey of the Montpelier Housing Task Force. Linda Ryan, Executive
Director of the Samaritan House in St. Albans and Chair of the Vermont
Coalition to End Homelessness, estimates that 80 to 85 percent of
those staying in homeless shelters in Vermont are employed. This
phenomenon, due to the lack of affordable housing in the state, is
exacerbated by the lack of livable wage and the spiking fuel costs,
Bailey noted.
Vermont's numbers tell the whole story. Estimates of Vermont's
homeless have been at around 4,000 for the past few years. And the
length of stay in shelters is growing, making any real increase in the
numbers of Vermont homeless hard to track. "As shelter stays are
becoming longer, the number of people that shelters can house has gone
down," said Erhard Mahnke, Coordinator of the Vermont Affordable
Housing Coalition. According to the Vermont Housing Data Profile, the
average length of stay between June 2006 and July 2007 was 33 nights.
Longer stays and full shelters are a trend that has continued. "All
shelters in the state, except for one, are full with waiting lists
right now," said Mahnke. "People are worried about where the homeless
will go this winter." Exacerbating that worry is the fact that "the
temporary housing benefit that the state provides when shelters are
full may have to be shut down by the end of December," said Mahnke.
"More people are having to be put up in motels because of longer
shelter stays." The state will pay for the first 28 days of these
stays, but any extended stay will be denied if the money is cut off
after December. "This means that if anyone is staying in a hotel and
needs more than 28 days, they will be shut out," said Mahnke.
Also adding to the homeless problem is rising fuel costs. Ryan noted
"the spike in fuel costs have driven people into homelessness that
would have otherwise been able to afford housing." She pointed out the
already large numbers of people that are seeking fuel assistance this
year. "We are seeing more lower middle class applying for assistance
this year. The problem is climbing up the class ladder. " The average
benefit of $1,000, according to the Central Vermont Community Action
Council, will not last through the year.
But the largest impact on the rising homeless numbers in the state is
the lack of affordable housing. "Working people are becoming homeless
due to a lack of truly affordable housing," said Ryan. And creating
more affordable housing is the crux of the solution, according to
Mahnke. "The only long range solution is for Vermont to have enough
affordable housing—a basic human need and right."
And although it is the state capitol, Montpelier is not immune to the
homeless problem. "There is demand for 480 housing units by 2015 in
central Vermont," said Bailey. "We are falling behind. There is a real
need for affordable housing right here in Montpelier." He noted that
regularly in Montpelier, 100 people a day attend the local soup
kitchens. "You have to wonder where they are and how close they are to
falling off the cliff and becoming homeless."
Morgan Brown, a temporarily housed Montpelier resident, went on to
note that "a lot of people don't think there's any homelessness in
Montpelier. They like to think it's a Barre problem because that is
where they want the homeless people to go."
Brown notes that lack of affordable housing causes the real crunch for
people. "Even if a person has an income like me, it doesn't do you any
good when the rent is above the ceiling," he said. "Availability and
affordability are the major problems."
What can we do to keep our neighbors from falling off that cliff? "We
have to stop trying to fix people," said Brown. "Housing is a big
piece of all of this, and people working in the homeless community are
realizing that a lot of this has to do with housing. The homeless may
have other needs too, but they have to start with housing. Shelter
beds are great, but they are expensive and if we don't have housing,
where will the homeless go?"
Ryan and Mahnke also think that we need to take a broader view of the
solution. "We need more money in the emergency shelter fund to help
our shelters operate" under the constraints of rising fuel costs and
increasing health care costs for staff, said Ryan. "We also need the
legislature to increase the general assistance money." This money
supports the temporary housing benefit that helps people stay in
hotels until they can find housing on their own. "If that money runs
out, we're really going to be in trouble here," said Ryan.
Extra money will definitely help the homeless situation in the state
by providing for the homeless throughout the winter, but it won't end
the problem. Mahnke noted that to really help, affordable housing has
to be built. "If you want to end homelessness, you must fully fund the
Vermont Housing and Conservation Board." They are responsible for
creating and maintaining affordable housing. Currently funded through
property transfer taxes, the board has not received its full amount of
funding since 2001. "This adds up to $31.7 million," said Mahnke.
"That would have created 830 affordable homes."
Both groups will be working to encourage the legislature to take some
of these issues up in the next session. But the answers lie in having
enough housing for the residents of Vermont. "There are a lot of
different ingredients to help homelessness in Vermont, but affordable
housing is the foundation," said Mahnke. "If someone doesn't have
housing, all the services in the world won't help."


Week of December 6, 2007
Montpelier Bridge
[Montpelier, Vermont; Bi-monthly community newspaper]
Cover article(s) [not archived once new edition becomes available]
Central Vermont Food Banks Face A Long, Cold Winter:

by Carrie Chandler

The tables are full for the Tuesday soup kitchen at Bethany United
Church of Christ. "Lately, it's been over a hundred people every
week," said Phyllis Rowell, one of the coordinators of the church's
soup kitchen. "People are lined up as soon as we open our doors."
Bethany is one of the Montpelier congregations that, together, provide
a free hot lunch every day. They have seen an increase in demand, as
have other agencies that provide food in central Vermont. "Demand is
definitely up," said Judy Stermer, Communications Specialist at the
Vermont Food Bank. "Statewide, we've seen a 25–30 percent increase
over this time last year."
They are expecting that trend to continue through the winter, thanks
to the high price of energy. "One-third of the people we serve have to
choose between food and heat," said Doug O'Brien, chief executive of
the Vermont Food Bank. "In Vermont, you have to heat your home."
The Onion River Food Shelf serves several rural communities north and
east of Montpelier. It hasn't reported an increase in clientele, but
it has seen a greater intensity of need. "People are asking for more
help than in the past," said Diane Fielder, the Food Shelf's
Secretary-Treasurer. "A lot of our people have lost jobs, have
transportation issues, and the cost of heat is a big problem."
Rowell has gotten to know some of the regulars at Bethany's soup
kitchen. "Many have mental health issues; some have no marketable
skills," she said. "They are now facing a choice between food and
fuel. When I see families with little kids here, it makes my heart
The daily soup kitchen is a low-budget affair that relies on the free
use of church kitchens, volunteer labor and financial support, and
food supplied by local restaurants. On a recent Tuesday, Bethany's
fare included two kinds of soup, beans and franks, cole slaw, sandwich
fixings, coffee, juice, and desserts. "Today's meal cost $50.06," said
Rowell with a hint of pride. Not a bad price to feed over a hundred
The soup-kitchen program is an important part of the food safety net
in the Montpelier area, but it's a relatively small part. At the other
end of the scale is the Vermont Food Bank, which provides 63 percent
of the supplies for local food pantries around the state. Its food
comes from a variety of sources, including supermarkets and corporate
donors; but a key source is the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Unfortunately, federal support for food banks has declined in the
recent past, and the food stamp program hasn't increased its basic
benefit in 30 years. That's a double whammy for emergency-food
providers: as inflation eats away at the purchasing power of food
stamps, people are more frequently turning to sources like food
pantries and soup kitchens. But those agencies have fewer resources to
draw upon.
Many of these problems would be eased if a new farm bill is signed
into law. The bill would provide more supplies for food banks, and
would increase food-stamp benefits. But the bill is currently tied up
in the U.S. Senate. According to O'Brien, all the food banks in
northern New England are preparing a joint news release urging
senators to set aside partisan differences and pass the farm bill.
In the meantime, food banks are doing what they can. The Vermont Food
Bank recently dipped into its own pocketbook to replenish its
inventory. Local agencies are asking donors to be generous—not only
during the holiday season, but afterward as well. "The needs continue
throughout the cold weather," said Diane Fielder of the Onion River
Food Shelf.


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