November 22, 2007
By MEGAN JAMES
ADDISON COUNTY — Deep in the New Haven woods, the whirly-gig wheels on Dave Winborn’s ambulance-shaped lawn ornament spin around in the wind. This is how visitors know they’ve taken the right path to his tent, Winborn said, and how he knows he’s home.
Winborn doesn’t consider himself homeless, and he doesn’t consider himself poor. He has a job, a truck and his beautiful tent, complete with a woodstove and writing desk, which he has inhabited since this summer when he pitched it on a friend’s land.
The 55-year-old is an EMT on three different area rescue squads: he has volunteered with the Bristol squad for more than 25 years, with New Haven First Response for about 15 years and five months ago he started a paid position with Valley Rescue Squad in Hancock.
Next spring Winborn will earn his associate’s degree in human services from the Community College of Vermont.
“If I don’t blow it,” he said with a smile. “It’ll be the first time in my life I’ve ever worn a cap and gown. I never finished high school. I went right from public school to the streets.”
But, even though he is a contributing member of society with a paying job, Winborn is one of many people in Addison County who cannot find an affordable apartment.
This month the United Way of Addison County released the results of its 2007 Community Needs Assessment, in which about 750 area residents responded to a survey asking them to identify the most pressing needs they face today. Affordable housing ranked among the top four problems, along with financial stability, health and transportation.
According to Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes, the rising cost of rent and the widening gap between the rich and poor have made it increasingly more difficult to secure an apartment in this area.
“Many of us, myself included, our lives weren’t really that much different from theirs when we were young and struggling,” Ready said. “The difference between struggling and being homeless is really in some of the economic factors that we’re seeing now.”
According to a study released by the University of New Hampshire in September, Vermont saw one of the highest jumps in income disparity in the United States in recent years, second only to Connecticut. Ross Gittell, the professor responsible for the study, attributed this to a simultaneous loss of manufacturing jobs and an influx of wealthy transplants from New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
For a person like Winborn, who has struggled to make ends meet all his life, this means trouble. The rising cost of living is edging him out of affordable housing.
His dilemma is all too typical. With Valley Rescue, Winborn takes home just under $350 a week, that’s about $1,400 a month. Apartments are available in Addison County for less than that; the average one-bedroom he’s seen is $800, he said. But take into account the expenses he would have to establish an apartment — security deposit, first and last month’s rent, utilities, furniture, cooking utensils and fuel — and Winborn estimates moving in could cost him upwards of $3,000.
“All things considered, I prefer my tent,” he said.
Winborn is not alone in his inability to find affordable housing. Crystal Kendall and Jack Walters have been bouncing around with family and friends for the last four years or so. Originally from the Winooski area, they came to the John Graham Emergency Shelter in October, about a month after Kendall gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Haley.
State regulations kept them from staying longer than a week with their friends, who receive Section 8 housing assistance, and the Burlington homeless shelter, run by the Committee on Temporary Shelter, was full.
Renting an apartment is just too expensive, the young couple said. In the Burlington area, the most affordable rent they could find for a two-bedroom apartment was $1,000 a month.
Kendall, a 26-year-old new mother, doesn’t have a job, and Walters, 22, has been looking for work, a difficult process when you don’t have a place to go home to every night, he said.
Walters isn’t being picky. “I’m willing to learn anything,” he said, but most of the jobs available are in the Middlebury or Bristol areas and he doesn’t have a car. This means planning around a sometimes-sporadic Addison County Transit Resources bus schedule.
The real difficulty when it comes to getting a roof over your head, Kendall said, is in your credit record.
“It’s all about the credit these days,” she said. “If you don’t have good credit, you don’t get an apartment.”
According to John Graham shelter manager Diana Rule, this is true even when it comes to subsidized housing.
“A lot of the people here don’t qualify for low-income housing in the area because of a bad landlord reference, bad credit reference,” she said. “So (even with) an apartment that would be totally affordable, where they would be paying $300 a month, they’re shut out of that market. The very people that the subsidized housing is made for a lot of times can’t get into it.”
And a credit report can look bad for all sorts of reasons, Rule stressed. It may not be that the person stiffed the landlord, but that they didn’t make their cell phone payment.
“We’ve got to find a way for people to get a second chance,” she said.
Adam, a 35-year-old deaf artist now living in Middlebury, found his second chance through a number of local agencies: the Vergennes shelter, Addison County Community Action Group (ACCAG) and the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (VCDHH). But it took him seven months and unflinching determination to land permanent housing.
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Adam, who asked that his last name not be used, had been living in Colchester and working at a Starbucks in Burlington. The coffee shop would not give him a full-time schedule, and his real passion, his freelance illustrating, kept him busy but didn’t bring in enough money to support him. He lost his apartment last winter when he could no longer make rent.
Two weeks later he was fired from his job. After a few months crashing with friends, he got a room at the shelter.
The shelter was his saving grace, Adam said. But he had to keep focused on finding an apartment and getting his life back together. He called his mission to move on from the shelter his escape from Alcatraz.
“I schemed every night,” he said. “Made a checklist in my head. Step-by-step. How am I going to pull this off?”
Working with ACCAG, Adam moved into permanent housing this spring. He also secured a part-time job through the VCDHH, serving as a job coach for another hearing-impaired person. He devotes the rest of his time to his drawing.
Meanwhile, Kendall, Walters and their daughter, the young family at the Vergennes shelter now, have made slow but steady progress in the last couple weeks. Kendall has been working with ACCAG to secure an apartment in Bristol. The place costs $750 a month, utilities included, and with a voucher from the state housing authority, she and Walters would pay nothing until they can secure an income.
“We want our own place to be able to set up (Haley’s) room,” Kendall said. “We’re confined to one room here. Sometimes it’s noisy. Haley will fall asleep and then it’ll wake her up.”
Kendall put in an application to rush the voucher early this month, but the Section 8 housing list has been backed up, meaning her voucher is at least a month off.
“I’ll still get the voucher within a couple months, but we kind of want a place before Christmas,” she said. “I’ve got enough people rooting for me right now. It’s going to all come to an end, I can feel it.”
As for Winborn out in the New Haven woods, he feels he’s already made it. Living in a tent suits him just fine. He ordered the thing six years ago in the hopes of living just like this.
“I like it here,” he said. “It’s home.”