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Vermont’s rates of homelessness are still among the worst in the nation

The exterior of a building with a sign that says "Fairbanks Inn"
Carly Berlin
VTDigger and Vermont Public
The Fairbanks Inn in St. Johnsbury on Oct. 19, 2023. The inn has housed people through the state’s motel voucher program, and last year, the town issued a zoning violation against the owner, alleging that the place was operating as a shelter outside the proper zoning district.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

For the second year running, Vermont has the second-highest per-capita rate of homelessness of any state in the country.

That’s according to an analysis of the 2023 point-in-time count, a coordinated, nationwide tally of unhoused people taken on a single night each January. The annual report on the count was released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in mid-December.

The federal government found that about 51 out of every 10,000 Vermonters were unhoused at the time of the tally.

That puts Vermont’s rate of homelessness behind only neighboring New York, where about 53 out of every 10,000 residents were unhoused. Oregon and California followed close behind, with about 48 and 47 people facing homelessness per 10,000 residents, respectively.

Across the country, the annual tally registered the highest number of people experiencing homelessness ever recorded since the point-in-time count began in 2007. Over 650,000 people nationwide were unhoused at the time of the count: a 12% jump from the 2022 tally.

The year-over-year increase was even more pronounced in Vermont, where 3,295 people were counted as homeless in January 2023 – an 18.5% increase over the prior year.

“We’re seeing record numbers of people experiencing homelessness,” said Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College who studies homelessness. “Trends in Vermont not only mirror what we’re seeing nationally, but in many ways, exceed the larger patterns.”

Driving the trend are Vermont’s lack of affordable housing, the end of pandemic-era supports like rental assistance, and increasing evictions, Sosin said.

But Vermont has another national distinction: It also has the highest rate of unhoused people who were sheltered of any state. As of the 2023 tally, Vermont sheltered 96% of unhoused individuals in emergency shelters or some form of temporary housing.

New York had the second highest rate of sheltered homelessness, likely because of New York City’s “right to shelter” law, Sosin said. Vermont’s high sheltered rate can likely be attributed to the Covid-era expansion of the motel housing program, Sosin said, which was providing shelter to the vast majority of the state’s unhoused population at the time of the tally in January.

The federally-funded pandemic version of the program also gave service providers a better handle on just how many people were unhoused or facing precarious housing situations in Vermont.

“What that did – for the very first time – was gave us the most accurate and clear picture of the of the actual magnitude of the people who were experiencing homelessness, or who were housing insecure,” said Sarah Russell, special assistant to end homelessness for the city of Burlington, and co-chair of the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance.

The expanded motel housing program accounted for a massive spike in the number of unhoused Vermonters between 2020 and 2021. But the tally has continued to tick up steadily in the years since.

From 2022 to 2023, the number of people in households with children becoming unhoused jumped by a stark 36% in Vermont. A disproportionate number of Black Vermonters reported experiencing homelessness.

Since the January count, though, the state has begun to unwind the COVID-era motel program as federal funds have run dry. In early June, around 800 people were evicted from hotels and motels across the state.

Already, Chittenden County has begun to see a rapid uptick in the number of people who are unsheltered, or living on the streets, in parks, or in vehicles, Russell said.

The county keeps an ongoing tally of unhoused people throughout the year. In 2022 during the summer, when the number of people living outside typically increases, the county saw around 80 people living unsheltered. But over the course of this summer and fall, those numbers more than tripled. As of November, the county had over 250 people who self-reported as sleeping unsheltered, in a place not meant for human habitation, Russell said.

After the June evictions, lawmakers struck a deal that would keep over a thousand Vermonters sheltered in motels until April 2024, unless state officials found alternate accommodations.

Yet finding permanent affordable housing for people is a challenge, Russell said. In Chittenden County, there are often dozens more people determined to be ready to move into housing than there are units available, she said.

As of late November, 740 households remained housed through the pandemic-era program. Before the program sunsets this spring, state officials have pitched an ambitious plan to stand up a slate of large, new emergency shelters.

But Russell worries the number of Vermont residents living unsheltered could skyrocket.

“Once the program ends, I think that we will see – or I know that we will see – that number around folks who are unsheltered really, massively increase,” she said.

And when people begin living unsheltered, they become much more difficult to count, particularly in more remote settings. That will make it harder for service providers to get an accurate picture of homelessness in the state.

As it stands, the point-in-time count is generally considered an undercount of the problem. It does not account for people who are couch surfing, or doubling up with friends or family.

“It will be much harder to conduct the 2024 count,” Sosin said. “We know that rural homelessness is often invisible.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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