[Hpn] Budget ‘Band-Aid’ to Patch Homeless Policy Ills; 7Days; Local Matters news section; Burlington, VT; 12/12/2007
Morgan W. Brown
Wed, 12 Dec 2007 09:09:11 -0500
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
[Burlington, Vermont; Local alternative weekly newspaper]
Local Matters news section
Budget 'Band-Aid' to Patch Homeless Policy Ills
[print version forwarded]
By Mike Ives [12.12.07]
VERMONT — Winter doesn't officially start until next week, but every
homeless shelter in Chittenden County is already full, and
emergency-fuel requests are twice what they were last year.
Vermonters who can't afford rental apartments — or find a bed in
shelters — have traditionally sought help through the state's
Emergency/General Assistance fund , which pays for semi-permanent
motel stays. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of households seeking
EA-funded motels in Chittenden County increased from 370 to 774.
Approximately 1100 children may have been affected.
But the program is in jeopardy. Social-service providers recently
learned that the fund's $150,000 budget will likely run out by the end
of the month. They say EA/GA's budgeting snafu underscores disturbing
flaws in Vermont's social-welfare system, and that policymakers aren't
doing enough to help struggling Vermonters transition off welfare and
into affordable housing.
Rita Markley, executive director of Burlington's Committee on
Temporary Shelter  (COTS), warns that the "sky is falling" on
Vermont's low-income population this year. At a Monday press
conference on homelessness at Burlington City Hall Auditorium, Markley
exhorted Agency of Human Services  (AHS) Deputy Secretary Patrick
Flood to fully fund the program through the end of this season.
The EA/GA fund is "the very last strand [of the safety net] for people
who have no other housing options," Markley insisted, rising from her
chair to address Flood. "If there isn't room in the shelter, just
imagine where these 774 families would go."
"We need to restructure GA, period," Flood conceded to the
50-plus-person crowd. He expects to receive an additional $300,000
from a state budget committee to fund the program.
But in the lobby afterward, Markley said throwing cash at the program
won't fix the problem. According to the 15-year COTS veteran,
homelessness in Vermont has "mushroomed" while policymakers "keep
ignoring and ignoring" it. Specifically, she thinks the state should
provide more housing opportunities and make its "back-rent" program —
which only offers rent-assistance grants to parents with minor
children — more "flexible."
As is, many people who need back-rent assistance don't qualify for it,
Markley said. The state, which doesn't keep stats on the people it
turns away from the back-rent program, under-spent its $577,000
back-rent budget by almost half in 2006 and 2007— a sign of misguided
social-welfare priorities, she suggested.
"We could do significantly better with back rent," admitted Joseph
Patrissi, deputy commissioner of the state's Economic Services
Division . The administrator stressed, though, that his department
is doing something. It currently sponsors EA/GA "pilot" projects in
Springfield, St. Albans and Morrisville that provide case-management
services for "underlying issues" such as drug and alcohol abuse.
Patrissi wants to bring the pilot to Burlington and Rutland.
Markley is optimistic about Patrissi's plan, but wishes state
officials would think more proactively. "Because of the expense of the
EA motels," she suggested, "it's finally generated attention so that
people are looking more systemically at what has caused the problem —
and how to resolve it."
Erhard Mahnke, coordinator of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition
 (VAHC), takes a similar tack. "Part of the solution that AHS is
supporting is a Band-Aid," asserted Mahnke, who thinks the back-rent
program should also cover single individuals. "The bottom line is that
. . . it's much more efficient and effective if you deal with things
in a preventive way, rather than after the crisis has occurred."
Last weekend, the Central Vermont Community Action Council  (CVCAC)
in Morrisville was helping three separate homeless parties pay for
local motels at $78 per night via funding from the United Way,
according to CVCAC housing specialist Wendy Allen. On Monday morning —
just as the homelessness conference in Burlington adjourned — one
couple was forced to move from a motel into their car. The homeless
woman "started a job today," explains Allen, "and I don't feel that
she's going to be able to hold onto it." Allen speculated that her
client will soon return to state welfare rolls.
"It's this vicious cycle of setting people up to fail," said the
housing specialist of Vermont's social-welfare system. "The low-income
and the middle class are not able to sustain anymore — we're seeing
more and more of that every day."
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