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Homelessness knows no holiday in county

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December 18, 2006

By JOHN FLOWERS

ADDISON COUNTY — One by one, they trickled into Middlebury’s Triangle Park, a frigid no man’s land hemmed by a crawling din of downtown traffic on this cold December day.

Without fanfare, the 12 men and women exchanged greetings, lit candles, and spoke for a growing population that has been reticent to speak for itself — the homeless of Addison County.

“On one of the darkest days of the year, we are here to try to remind people that there are a lot of homeless people out there who have no roof over their heads and no food to eat,” said Martha Hill, a member of the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter board.

Several of those homeless people are currently being served at the Vergennes-based shelter, which can accommodate up to 18 individuals at one time.

The shelter has been at capacity more often than not during recent months.

“We are turning people away almost every single day,” said Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the shelter. “Almost all of the people currently living here have spent time sleeping outside.”

The statistics are indeed sobering.

Ready pointed to state figures showing more than 4,000 Vermonters have been homeless during the past three years — and more than 25 percent of that population have been children.

Vermont homeless shelters had to turn away 1,443 people last year because all beds were filled.

Many of the shelter’s clients hold jobs, but not ones that pay enough to cover the going market rents for local housing.

And thousands of Vermonters — nearly half of the almost 71,000 households who rent — can’t afford the rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment, which averages $797 per month across Vermont, according to a new report released last week by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.

The report also found that the “housing wage” for Vermont — the hourly wage necessary to afford the rent on a two-bedroom apartment — has risen to $15.34 per hour, or $31,900 per year, which is more than twice the state’s minimum wage. This represents an increase in the housing wage of 33.4 percent since 2000, almost double the increase in the consumer price index for the same period. The report describes “affordable rents” as representing “the generally accepted standard of spending not more than 30 percent of income on housing costs.”

In Addison County the report tells a similar story. It said the housing wage here is $14.37 per hour, or $29,880 per year, which would put the affordable fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment at $747 per month. There were 3,271 rental households in Addison County in 2000, about one-quarter of all households. The estimated 2005 mean wage of a renter locally was $10.56 per hour.

“It points to the structural nature of the problem we are seeing (at the shelter) — working families with children being priced out of the market,” Ready said. “We have people who are working full-time and trying to get permanent housing. It’s a big issue, and it’s not getting any smaller.”

The shelter will provide roughly 5,000 bed nights of food, shelter and support services for families and individuals this year on a budget of $125,000. Ready expects 15-20 client families to find permanent housing and 30-40 individuals to nail down jobs during their stays.

The shelter budget includes town meeting appropriations, donations and grants, along with $29,700 from the state’s Emergency Shelter Program.

“It’s really a shoestring budget,” Ready said, noting the spending plan is supposed to cover food, utilities, heat, salaries and other expenses.

MORE STATE FUNDING?

With the homeless population growing, Ready and other shelter advocates recently appealed to state lawmakers for some extra funding. They will get a chance to plead their case during the next legislative session, thanks to a bill being drafted by incoming Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin, D-Putney. Shumlin’s bill calls for a $500,000 boost in state funding for shelter services. The state’s Emergency Shelter Program is currently funded at $542,000. It has been bumped up slightly in recent years from $525,000, but the appropriation has remained virtually unchanged for more than a decade, according to Ready.

Shumlin hopes his bill will stir debate around funding for homeless shelters. The actual $500,000 appropriation request, he said, will need to be included in the budget by House and Senate Appropriation Committee members.

“Homeless shelters are robbing and begging to survive,” Shumlin said, “and they still can’t meet the demand.”

He noted that the Vermont State Hospital used to provide services for homeless people with mental health issues. Shumlin said that is no longer the case.

“Now they are being put out in the street, unless (the clients) have a criminal history,” Shumlin said.

Shelter officials hope legislators can find extra money for the homeless within what is shaping up to be a tight fiscal year 2008 budget. In the meantime, they will try to meet clients’ needs during in the cold months ahead.

“I think this will be a tough winter for people,” Ready said.

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