In supporting people without homes, the Haven not only provides material support and services, but we work every day to ensure they are not invisible or forgotten. This month, that vision statement is literally true. People who are homeless are the center of focus for the annual Point in Time (PIT) count. The PIT is a count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness that takes place on a single night in January across the country; it’s a count that has occurred for 15 years. In Vermont, the PIT count took place on the night of January 22 and January 23.
The Haven not only submitted a count of people, both adults and children, staying in the Byrne Family Shelter, the Hixon Adult Shelter, and the winter Seasonal Shelter, but we were on the streets, under bridges, and in the woods to ensure that everyone who is homeless and living in a “place not for human habitation” was counted. This included those camping, sleeping in cars and other outdoor locations, or temporarily staying in a motel.
I met with Renee Weeks, our Director of Shelter and Clinical Services, whom together with Adult Programs Clinical Supervisor, Becky Hadley, followed the trails they found in the snow early in the morning on January 22 with temperatures well below freezing to visit known campsites throughout White River Junction. About 15 people living in seven campsites were added to the PIT count as a result of their efforts. These visits are valuable to us because we also get a chance to have conversations with people to find out about their wellbeing and what they need, as well as encourage them to apply for services that will support them and eventually allow them to live more securely in housing. We bring a backpack of essential supplies to distribute too. Everyone they meet is grateful for the visit; not everyone is ready to engage with more conventional living pathways, but these contacts can lead to small steps forward in service connection, and in the future, a more permanent place to live. We have seen this happen scores of times.
While it can be frustrating that people choose the more challenging path of continuing to camp outdoors, we accept their decisions because people have to be ready for change in order for change to be successful. Some find this acceptance easier than others for many reasons. Though it’s difficult to understand why someone would choose to live outside year-round, especially in our harsh winters, we accept that this is the freedom they want at this time.
The PIT count is important for a few reasons. It is required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for all communities nationwide that receive federal dollars to serve homeless individuals and households. The PIT count identifies how many young people, families with children, and veterans are homeless. Different populations require targeted solutions and coordination of services. The count also helps communities plan services and programs to appropriately address local needs, measure progress, and identify strengths and gaps in a community’s current homelessness assistance system.
In Vermont and Windsor County, where the Haven is located, the number of people who were counted as homeless in 2020 declined from last year. New Hampshire also saw a slight decline in the last two PIT counts. We will know in a few months if this trend continues.
The Haven will soon be taking part in a second count of people who are homeless in the U.S. Census. Mandated by the Constitution to occur every ten years, the census has always been challenged to count people who fall outside norms–those without a permanent address where a form could be mailed, people in a transitory status without a known address, people living in emergency shelters or unsheltered in hard-to-find places such as remote camps, sleeping in a car or on a friend’s couch. This census presents an additional challenge as the main source of data collection will be the internet.
The Haven is ready to assist the U.S. Census Bureau with its appointed task of making sure everyone is counted. We’ve met with local representatives of the Census Bureau to plan how we can work together to make sure everyone living in one of our shelters, visiting our Food Shelf, and sharing our community meals is counted. We will also work with the census enumerators to help them locate people who are living outside. The reason usually cited for why the census is important is that the results are used in allocation of dollars for federal programs. We entirely agree that this is important so Vermont “gets its fair share” of support for federal programs. But making sure that everyone is counted, especially those who society seems to have forgotten and who are increasingly at risk, seems to be just as important.
The title of this piece mentions a statement of rights. Vermont is taking up legislation to adopt a Homeless Bill of Rights. Several other states have already adopted similar bills (including Massachusetts and Connecticut), but the total number is modest. The rights include ensuring that all Vermonters are entitled to the same rights and protections of the law regardless of their housing status. Some of the enumerated rights include access to public services, the right to move freely in public spaces, equal treatment by state agencies, the right to register to vote and receive documentation to prove your identity, a reasonable expectation of privacy of personal property, and not being subject to civil or criminal sanctions for solicitation, sharing, accepting or offering food, water, money or other donations in public places. I have been asked to provide testimony at a public legislative hearing, which I will gladly do. While these rights might place additional burdens on society to find and make accommodations so that these rights are honored, the effort is worthwhile and necessary. If nothing else, the effort will remind us that being homeless is not a penalty that allows society to remove rights or place undue burdens on someone. Protecting those rights is a reminder that people shouldn’t be homeless. Work on solving that condition will reduce the number of people who will need these accommodations. And wouldn’t that be wonderful?