Homelessness in Vermont has increased — and towns are responding differently to the problem
An extremely tight housing market and soaring rents. The end of the pandemic-era eviction ban. The tightening of eligibility for Vermont’s emergency hotel housing program — which led this summer to hundreds of people getting kicked out of rooms. These factors are contributing to a dramatic increase in homelessness in Vermont, which has the second highest rate of homelessness in the country. The increase has forced some municipalities to confront homelessness, which is new for some towns.
Gail Trede has worked at the Bradford Public Library for 15 years. She says there’s always been some unsheltered people that have come through, usually just a few.
“We have open Wi-Fi, and we have a water spigot out back,” she said. People are welcome to use those things — until it becomes a problem.”
Trede says there were about a dozen people camping around the library this summer. She started finding cigarette butts, needles and — a few times — feces. Trede wasn’t sure what to do.
“I don't want to tell anybody that they're not welcome here, but at the same time, it's definitely causing a disturbance,” she says. “And is it my job to do that? After I've spent so much time welcoming these people here to then say, ‘You know, you're not welcome anymore.’ I mean, where do people go?”
In mid-July, Trede went to the selectboard to tell them what was going on.
“At one of their meetings I said ‘My name is Gail. I'm here to just let you know what's happening in your town,’” she says. “And that these are your neighbors, these are our neighbors.”
According to meeting minutes, no action was taken at that meeting in July. But about a month later, the board asked Bradford Resilience, a pandemic-era town commission, to start brainstorming ways to tackle the rise in homelessness.
Monique Priestly, a state representative, started Bradford Resilience as a mutual aid group during the pandemic. Priestly says one focus is building up better communication between the town and service providers.
“When we had our first call the service providers, like Capstone and the Haven, they were like ‘We didn't, nobody told us that you guys are having an increase so, like, we can definitely come in and help but we need somebody to, like, tell us what's going on,’” Priestly says.
There could be some simple solutions to concerns raised in town as well. Bradford didn’t have public trash cans until this summer — and currently there aren’t any public toilets. Nikki Stevens, a member of the select board, says getting some bathrooms would be a big help.
“Folks are talking porta-potties — it's the easiest intervention,” Stevens says. “I've heard some community members offer to host it on their property if the town will pay for it.”
Bradford, a town of nearly 2,800 people, isn’t the only community grappling with the recent spike in homelessness. Middlebury business owners are urging the town to do something about an encampment near downtown. Burlington plans to open a temporary 30-bed shelter this winter. And last month St. Johnsbury approved its first homeless shelter.
Some towns have responded more aggressively. Canaan, a town of about 900 in Essex County, tried to ban sleeping outside — a measure that the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont said was likely unconstitutional. According to meeting minutes, the town recently tabled that proposal.
Anne Sosin, a researcher at Dartmouth College, says the state needs a more comprehensive plan for addressing homelessness.
“Absent state leadership, we’re seeing a fragmentation in approaches at community levels,” she says. “Some communities are resorting to harmful practices.”
Vermont’s homelessness rate has increased 150% since the start of the pandemic. Prior to this uptick, smaller, rural towns like Bradford might not have thought homelessness was a problem, Sosin says.
“For the first time, many communities are struggling to understand that this problem exists here and to think about how to address it,” she says.
Back in Bradford, Trede, the librarian, says many of the people who were camping around the library have left. She hopes the town figures out some better ways to address homelessness.
“We can't just push them down the road,” Trede says. “It's not going to get better just by kicking them out of town.”
Trede says she’s taking a few courses on de-escalation techniques and mental health issues. She’s hoping those classes give her more tools to help out people who are unsheltered.
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