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Adopting a 'housing first' model in Vermont could end homelessness, advocates say

A woman speaks into several microphones at a podium in the Vermont Statehouse's Cedar Room. Four people stand behind her. To the podiums right is a sign that reads "Housing First Vermont."
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Rebecca Duprey, Anne Sosin, Sarah Launderville, Brenda Siegel and Falko Schilling, from left, are members of a coalition that’s urging lawmakers to guarantee shelter for all unhoused Vermonters.

A new coalition of advocacy groups is calling on lawmakers to end homelessness by adopting a “housing first” model that provides non-congregate shelter to all unhoused Vermonters, regardless of whether they’re willing to participate in drug treatment or other programs.

Vermont Legal Aid, the ACLU of Vermont and the Vermont Center for Independent Living are among the organizations that have joined “Housing First Vermont.”

At a press conference in Montpelier Thursday, members of the coalition said the state can end homelessness by dramatically increasing access to non-congregate shelters, and dedicating at least 30% of all new state-subsidized housing units to people exiting homelessness.

“Our policies must start with the idea that we will keep people sheltered as a shuttle to permanent housing rather than a respite from the street,” said Brenda Siegel, with End Homelessness Vermont.

Siegel said the state’s existing programs, including one that relies on motels to provide temporary shelter for up to 84 days, cycle poor and often medically vulnerable Vermonters in and out of safe housing.

“We have … had to tell … far too many people in wheelchairs, people with disabilities and dozens and dozens of families with children that they will have to sleep outside,” Siegel said.

More from Vermont Edition: How Vermont organizations help people experiencing homeless through the winter

Anne Sosin, a public policy researcher at Dartmouth, said the housing-first approach is a proven model that yield long-term benefits to both unhoused individuals and the communities in which they live.

“Decades of research has shown that it’s possible to house virtually everyone experiencing homelessness with successful outcomes,” Sosin said.

The coalition’s recommendations come as Vermont marks a continued rise in homelessness. While a recent federal analysis found that the state did better than any other on sheltering people who were unhoused last year, advocates and service providers fear Vermont could soon lose that distinction.

On April 1, hundreds of Vermonters are set to lose their shelter through the expanded pandemic-era version of the state’s motel housing program. Last summer, the state evicted hundreds of people from motels after federal funding for the program ran dry.

More from Brave Little State: ‘Can’t we just buy them?’ The future of Vermont’s motel housing program

The Agency of Human Services is seeking $4 million in its mid-year budget adjustment to stand up five temporary, emergency shelters by spring. But key questions remain, including where exactly the shelters will be located, who still staff them, how large they will be, and who will get a spot.

Lawmakers have grilled members of Gov. Phil Scott’s administration for their lack of a plan, and have emphasized that focusing solely on people remaining in the Covid-era program would be misguided. Even more people sheltering in motels through the state’s adverse weather policy this winter will need to exit their rooms by March 15.

Siegel on Thursday said the administration’s plan is “bad” and “temporary” and will “leave people in the street.”

While officials point to an uptick in permanent shelter beds statewide that are in the development pipeline, even with increased capacity, Vermont will have shelter spots numbering in the hundreds — and thousands of unhoused people vying for them.

Reporting contributed by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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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