This year’s virtual Homelessness Awareness Day was a call with renewed urgency to take concrete steps to end homelessness in Vermont.
Sean Elsass says he never thought in a million years that he would ever have to stop working or become homeless. He had worked his whole life: first as a lieutenant in his home state of Texas and later a corrections officer in Vermont. That is, until health issues forced him to stop. Unable to pay the bills, in late 2019 he found himself with nowhere to sleep but his car. He got by on $56 per month while he lived in the Hixon House Shelter and went through the application process for Social Security and housing. “Your dignity is really gone when you hit a low like that in life,” he says. “Homelessness is the worst feeling ever, and it’s the worst feeling when people look at you like you’re not a human being, and that’s how I felt.”
Tiffany first experienced homelessness as a child. Her father faced mental health issues, and fights with neighbors forced them out of their housing and into their car. They moved around constantly, and she never had a stable home or a model of a healthy relationship. By the time she was 16, she was pregnant and in an abusive relationship. “It was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire,” she says. Even after recovering from addiction and being 10 years clean and sober, she found shelter environments triggered her PTSD, so she lived under bridges and in tents in the woods. She didn’t have stable housing until the Upper Valley Haven helped her find a subsidized apartment last year. What helped her most was “actually having someone who was willing to help me, and not give up on me,” she says.
Aaron has several college degrees, worked full time, and once owned a home. But while renting in Burlington, he paid over 40 percent of his income toward housing. When his landlord sold his building to a developer who converted once-affordable apartments into luxury ones, he couldn’t find anything he could truly afford and moved into his truck, where he struggled to find a place to park without getting ticketed. For years, he got by on workarounds: coffee shops where he could plug in his phone, showers in a gym, buffets where he could take back food and make an extra meal. But when the pandemic hit, “Suddenly, all of those workarounds were gone overnight, in the middle of March when the world shut down.”
A day of listening and advocacy brought formerly homeless Vermonters, direct service providers, and advocates together with lawmakers.
Those are just some of the stories we heard from people who have recently experienced homelessness in Vermont. On Wednesday, January 27, 2021, Vermonters from across the state gathered virtually to raise awareness of the trials that Vermonters without stable housing face every day, remember those who have died without homes, and reflect on what we all must do to end homelessness in the coming year.
Vermonters usually gather in person Homelessness Awareness Day in Montpelier.
Each year, The Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition (VAHC), Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness (VCEH), and Chittenden County Homeless Alliance (CCHA) sponsor the various components of Homelessness Awareness Day, typically consisting of advocacy training, legislative testimony, and a commemorative Vigil. This year’s Homelessness Awareness Day took on a renewed urgency due to the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. More than 100 people—including currently and formerly homeless Vermonters, shelter and service providers, lawmakers, and advocates—engaged with events virtually through Zoom and YouTube throughout the day.
“One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has done, it’s helped make this invisible crisis of homelessness in our state visible to those who don’t typically see it,” says Renee Weeks, Co-Chair of VCEH.
For instance, the January 2020 Point in Time count found 1,110 Vermonters who fit the HUD definition of “literally homeless.” But by January of 2021, over 2,512 Vermonters were living in hotels paid for by the state because they had no other place to go, suggesting that the true extent of homelessness in Vermont is much greater than statistics had previously indicated. Vermonters who were couchsurfing or living with other families could no longer safely do so, and others may have become homeless recently.
Homelessness Awareness Day brought attention to the scope of the problem. Vermont lawmakers have taken important steps to keep Vermonters experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity safe during the pandemic, including the expansion of the motel voucher program, additional funds for transitioning into housing, and rental assistance and an eviction moratorium to prevent future homelessness (see our fact sheet for more on how these programs helped).
Still, there is much work to be done. As we begin to emerge from this public health crisis, housing experts and advocates fear that lifting the temporary eviction moratorium combined with the financial hardships accumulated over months of (albeit critically important) economic shutdown will result in an unprecedented wave of evictions and dramatic increases in homelessness. VAHC and VCEH are advocating for increased funding to all three “legs” of the affordable housing “stool”: capital investment, rental assistance, and supportive services.
Homelessness Awareness Day began with an advocacy training session led by long-time lobbyist Amy Shollenberger of Action Circles, who discussed how to effectively engage with lawmakers on issues related to homelessness and housing, particularly in the current virtual environment. Later, Capstone Community Action Services Coordinator Ramsey Papp led a lawmaker outreach action that allowed participants to utilize the skills that they learned from the earlier advocacy training session.
If you missed these, you are welcome to get involved on your own time! Find helpful materials here, including a guide to finding your legislator’s contact information and a suggested script for engaging with them via email, phone, letter, or in-person.
A VHCB grant allowed Champlain Housing Trust to purchase the Ho Hum motel in South Burlington as an isolation and quarantine site for unhoused people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or exposure.
During legislative testimony on Homelessness Awareness Day to House and Senate committees, advocates dove deeper into the challenges they were seeing on the ground and specific needs that must be addressed. Direct service providers Emily Taylor from Champlain Housing Trust and Hilary Miller from the Sunset Motel shared their experience supporting homeless clients living in motels and shelters during the pandemic. Kylen Veilleux, a DIVAS Transitional Service Coordinator with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, outlined the challenges that formerly incarcerated survivors of sexual violence face when upon reentering the housing and job market. Executive Directors Sue Minter of Capstone and Eileen Peltier of Downstreet Housing and Community Development, both of whom serve Washington County, applauded Vermont’s overwhelmingly successful COVID response measures while simultaneously stating their opposition to the Governor’s proposal to dissolve the statewide General Assistance Emergency Motel Voucher Program, which has been instrumental in housing homeless Vermonters throughout the pandemic.
We also heard directly from people who have experienced homelessness themselves. Sean Elsass of Bethel testified powerfully to the two House Committees about how he became homeless despite having worked all his life. He called for various solutions, including more mental health support for people experiencing homelessness, more outreach to people housed in motels, and affordable housing that low-income people can truly afford. Sean, Marie Lennon, and Zachary Hughes, shared their personal experiences with homelessness and helping others experiencing homelessness during the Vigil. We also screened our video to showcase more perspectives from service providers and people with lived experience. Find more powerful and informative videos on homelessness here.
Vermont lawmakers reckoned with the scope of the homelessness crisis and committed to forward-looking solutions.
Despite our inability to gather physically on the State House Steps as usual, the impact of Homelessness Awareness Day was palpable. The event received positive news coverage from NBC5, WCAX, and Local 22 & Local 44. Lawmakers heard fresh perspectives on the challenge of homelessness specific to the pandemic, something that, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, pointed out, is critically important. “I didn’t always comprehend the critical importance of housing. It’s been a long journey for me to truly understand how housing sits at the nexus of so many of the problems in our communities across the state and our nation,” Senator Balint said. “Vermont still needs a lot more housing units and despite all our great work over the past legislative sessions, we still have so much work to do to end homelessness here in Vermont. We know that healthy families and robust communities start with safe homes and warm homes.”
The House of Representatives passed a Resolution recognizing “the need to restore quality of life and housing to homeless Vermonters.” In his devotional opening to the resolution, Representative Tom Stevens, painted a picture of the housing needs and challenges in Vermont: “We, as a state, did the right thing in housing Vermonters in hotels in the moments following the onslaught of the virus because we didn’t want this hyper-vulnerable population to become vectors for the virus and be in situations that would allow the virus to contaminate others. We closed shelters. We brought food to them. We kept them relatively safe… But we didn’t fully solve the problem. We haven’t addressed the underlying reasons for the existence of homelessness, but we’re working on it. We know the reasons, we know we need the will and the capacity to do it. We know we need to keep doing the next right thing, as long as we have the capacity to do so. And even when we don’t, we know we need to keep fighting to make sure we can help those who want and need a place to live, to be stable in, to raise their family in peace.”
VAHC echoes the words of Rep. Ann Pugh, Chair of the House Human Services Committee after testimony: “I do look forward to not having a Homelessness Awareness Day—that that’s not a day that we need to pinpoint.” Right now, more than ever, housing is the foundation upon which all else stands. As we struggle to protect ourselves each day from the deadly virus, stable housing represents not only an essential form of healthcare, but also doubles as a school, workplace, doctors office, and so much more. Yet numerous speakers during Homelessness Awareness Day repeated the phrase, “we are all one paycheck away from homelessness.” The reality is, in our economic system, the vast majority of people are only one unforeseen emergency away from losing their most fundamental source of stability.
Lt. Governor Molly Gray speaks at the Homelessness Awareness Day Vigil.
Many speakers throughout the day also expressed that, in this unprecedented moment, Vermont has an opening to build off of its successful pandemic response and take concrete steps toward establishing the kind of safety nets and affordable housing we need to make homelessness rare, brief, and one-time. “As we look to recover stronger from this pandemic, we have an opportunity to re-think everything. We cannot go back to the way things were,” said Lt. Governor Molly Gray in her remarks at the Vigil. “We have an opportunity to turn our greatest challenges into our greatest opportunities—making the successes of addressing housing during this pandemic permanent being top among them.”
“This pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, but we cannot afford to lose this opportunity to build a recovery plan that works for all Vermonters and leaves no one behind,” Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski echoed at the Vigil.
As ANEW Place Executive Director Kevin Pounds articulated in our video, “if we don’t see the needle moving in the next couple of years, it’s because it hasn’t been a true priority.” View VAHC’s and VCEH’s legislative priorities for more information on what these changes could look like.