Homeless Count Reflects a Sobering Reality – Valley News 6/29/24

Letter to the Editor from Haven Executive Director Michael Redmond

North Main Shelter
Artist rendering of new shelter and housing resource center the Haven plans to build at 608 N Main Street in White River Junction

For the Valley News, Saturday, June 29, 2024

The recent heat wave and the resultant health risks for broad sectors of the population have been on the minds of many. While the higher-than-average temperatures we experienced have now eased and will return later this summer in typical weather patterns, there’s no doubt that we are also impacted by the effects of long-term climate change.

At the Upper Valley Haven, we’re particularly aware of the impact of this hot spell on people who are unhoused — living outside in tents, cars, under bridges and in other places that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development deems “places not meant for human habitation.” Repeated days of very high temperatures and nights that don’t cool off sufficiently present significant risk to health and life. Experts tell us we will experience more frequent and longer hot weather periods in future years.

At the Haven we have our own barometers of health risks and community well-being exacerbated by weather.

Throughout the summer the number of people arriving daily for showers, food, tents and tarps, and other survival items have been on the rise.

Many days, a dozen people have signed up to take a shower, among the most basic of human needs.

Needless to say, coming inside to take a shower was also a way to cool down. We are glad that this is a service we can provide, as we did throughout the pandemic.

Of interest, this heat wave coincided with the release of Vermont’s Annual Point-In Time (PIT) Count of Those Experiencing Homelessness.

The count occurs on a uniform day in January across the country using the same standards and methodologies. This methodology allows a consistent count of people who are unhoused that can be compared nationally and at state and local levels and from year to year.

The findings of this year’s Vermont report are sobering.

There were 3,458 Vermonters counted as unhoused, including 737 children and 646 Vermonters ages 55 years old or older. This number represents a 300% increase over pre-COVID levels and a 5% increase over the 2023 count.

Many of those included in the count were staying in motel rooms funded by Vermont or shelters operated by organizations like the Haven.

However, local organizations like the Haven who participated in the count found 166 people who did not have access to shelter in either type of facility and were subject to the risks of being outside in our cold winters. It is also highly likely that this number represents an undercount of people who were unhoused as not everyone can be found on this one night and included in the PIT count. And it’s also important to know that the count does not include people who are temporarily doubled up in housing, couch surfing or other statuses not included in the homeless definition.

In addition, the incidence of homelessness in Vermont is not spread evenly across the population. For example, Black Vermonters were 5.6 times more likely to be unhoused than white Vermonters. The survey also found that for many, homelessness is not a short-term situation. Over 35% were unhoused for more than one year and over 72% were unhoused for more than 90 days.

Looking locally, the count of homelessness in our region also remains troubling and at higher levels than occurred prior to the COVID pandemic. In Windsor County there were 173 unhoused residents and another 78 in Orange County in this year’s PIT. By comparison in the January 2020 PIT Count, a few months before the pandemic started, there were “only” 113 persons unhoused in Windsor County and 23 in Orange. The disruption of the pandemic, under-investment in new housing over many decades leading to an ever-tightening housing market with extremely low vacancy rates and dramatic growth in rents have contributed to this problem and certainly strongly drive the growth in the number of unhoused people.

And the situation could grow worse soon. With the start of the fiscal year on July 1 Vermont is tightening eligibility criteria, restricting maximum lengths of stay and capping the number of motel rooms available for emergency shelter throughout the state due to loss of federal funding and legislative budget priorities. While Vermont Economic Services has been providing motel rooms for over 1,400 households statewide, starting this September no more than 1,100 rooms will be available. In the non-winter months (April to November), which total almost 250 days, eligible people can obtain a motel room for a maximum of 80 days each year.

However, there is some good news on the horizon. The burst of pandemic related funding for housing development has added significantly larger numbers of newly constructed housing units targeted to low-income Vermonters. Here in the Upper Valley, this year Twin Pines Housing Trust will open 98 new units of permanent housing in White River Junction, including 30 with rent supports and case management services provided by Haven service coordinators, all targeted to Haven clients who are homeless. An additional number will be targeted to homeless veterans. Over the last 12 months, despite the challenging rental market the Haven helped 60 of our clients find permanent housing in the Upper Valley.

And while we know that only housing will end homelessness, we also realize that sometimes interim solutions are needed. We are very happy that the Hartford Planning Commission has approved our project to develop a new building on the site of the old 25,000 Gifts location that will add 20 drop-in shelter beds available to anyone in need. This new project will also include day services to help people find permanent housing. And to come full circle, this space will be available as a cooling station in the summer and a place to come out of the cold in the winter.

We’ll be raising the funds to allow us to complete the project this year and hope to be able to open our doors by the winter of 2025-26.

Michael Redmond is executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, a White River Junction social service agency and shelter.

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