2 Vt. housing advocacy orgs merged, with 1 goal: Make homelessness 'brief, rare, and non-recurring'
Two of Vermont’s statewide housing advocacy organizations have joined forces.
The Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition and the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness recently merged and reformed as the Housing & Homelessness Alliance of Vermont (HHAV).
Frank Knaack is the inaugural executive director of HHAV. He sat down with Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki to talk about addressing Vermont’s homelessness crisis, as well as his path to this work, which started with … skateboarding.
Vermont Public’s Jenn Jarecki sat down with Frank Knaack, HHAV's inaugural executive director. They spoke about addressing Vermont’s homelessness crisis, as well as his path to this work, which started with … skateboarding. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: Tell us more about HHAV's two parent organizations and why they decided to merge.
Frank Knaack: Our predecessor organizations Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition and the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness had been around for a long time, and they'd been working really closely together. Because obviously the issues between you know, access to housing and combating homelessness are really tied to the same fundamental problems — around not having enough units, around not addressing temporary shelter needs that may exist. Now we're able to kind of think bigger, to engage in strategic planning to envision a future that tackles both of those issues without having to silo anything off. So we're really excited about that opportunity.
Jenn Jarecki: Can you tell us a little bit more about your connection to Vermont?
Frank Knaack: So yeah, I grew up in Manchester in southern Vermont. And it was kind of there where my interest in this work really began. You know, I was grew up as a skateboard kid. And so you know, had a lot of negative interactions with law enforcement for no other reason that we were just skateboarding. And it really, you know, piqued my interest in civil rights work and human rights work. That led me to Cairo, Egypt, to study international human rights law, but I knew I wanted to come back and work in the U.S.
And so when I came back to the U.S. in about 2005, I ended up getting a position with the ACLU. But a lot of that work, you know, I was dealing with issues that are repercussions of the failure to provide adequate housing. So a lot of issues that had to do with the criminalization of poverty, with funding court systems off the backs of the poor with using bail laws to basically be able to sweep up whole communities of unhoused people and hold them in jails, instead of actually providing housing. And so as I dug deeper and deeper into that work, I realized that we were just working on the Band-Aid issues. So when this opportunity in my home state of Vermont arose to actually be able to tackle these issues, these core issues and the intersecting issues around substance use and mental health, I was so excited to have this opportunity now to work with our board and staff and really lead this work going forward in Vermont.
Jenn Jarecki: Well, I'm glad you mentioned some of your other work around the country. I know that it dealt with the damaging ripple effects of mass incarceration in our communities. How do you see that thread woven within the fabric of housing insecurity and homelessness here in Vermont?
Frank Knaack: Vermont's made tremendous progress over the last few years, particularly with the influx of money that came in through COVID to really try and tackle the issues of expanding you know, the number of housing units available, expanding the wraparound services that people may need so that they can stay in their housing, and expanding access to temporary shelter.
But at the same time, we still look at and have, you know, debates around really regressive policies or drug policy, for example, you know, using the criminal legal system as an appropriate solution to people with substance use disorder or to not provide adequate mental health treatment. And so that folks with mental health crises are instead too often funneled into our criminal legal system. You know, with unhoused people, you know, using the criminal legal system as the tool to you know, clear encampments to criminalize people sleeping in certain spaces, etc.
Those are all highly inappropriate and highly ineffective ways to deal with, you know, the failure of our state and our communities to provide adequate housing. And so I think what we need to do is kind of take a step back, stop looking through the lens of rhetoric, start looking through the lens of data and recognize that if we really want to create safer and more just communities for all that we need to ensure the basic services for all.
Jenn Jarecki: The stated mission of HHAV is to make homelessness and housing insecurity "brief, rare and non-recurring." But less than a month ago, Vermont Public reported that Vermont has the second-highest-per-capita rate of homelessness of any state in America for the second year in a row at an 18% increase compared to the year prior. I mean, how do we get from here to there?
Frank Knaack: That report also showed that we were also housing I think one of the highest rates of people per capita. So I think it shows two things. It shows that Vermont really cares and is trying to do the right thing, but we still have a lot of work to do. And I'm really optimistic, actually. You know, we've been doing a lot of work at the Legislature this year — the hotel-motel program that's been utilized during the pandemic to ensure that folks have access to housing, there's been concerns that certain parts of that program may end. And I think we've really seen a shift at the Legislature to recognize that in Vermont, we care about people. And we need to ensure that people who don't have housing or need temporary shelter, have that shelter. We're going to see a vote on expanding or ensuring that when those programs end on March 15 and on April 1, people have and maintain housing through the rest of this fiscal year. You know, we are moving in a positive direction at this point.
Jenn Jarecki: The Scott administration has focused on the need to fix the regulatory system around housing, arguing that we've put hundreds of millions of dollars into housing development over the last few years, but that money hasn't gone far enough, because of our permitting landscape. What does HHAV make of the governor's stance, and what would you like to see lawmakers focus on over the next few months?
Frank Knaack: We're in this housing crisis not for one reason but for many reasons. We're not building enough housing, the cost of construction is skyrocketing. We have a lot of new people who have moved into our state, we have a growing number of short-term rentals, we have a lack of wage growth. All these issues intersect and combine to create the housing crisis that we currently have.
We also need to ensure that folks have wraparound services — just because you're providing someone with a roof overhead doesn't mean that they can or are gonna be able to stay in that housing, if they have health needs that aren't being addressed, if they have substance use needs that aren't being addressed. If there's no local transportation, and they can't get to their job. The administration's proposal of just dealing with regulatory reform is highly inadequate in terms of addressing all the other root issues that I'd mentioned earlier.
"We also need to ensure that folks have wraparound services — just because you're providing someone with a roof overhead doesn't mean that they can or are gonna be able to stay in that housing, if they have health needs that aren't being addressed, if they have substance use needs that aren't being addressed. If there's no local transportation, and they can't get to their job."Frank Knaack, Housing & Homelessness Alliance of Vermont
Jenn Jarecki: So from your chair, Frank, how big or small a problem is Act 250 within the whole housing affordability story?
Frank Knaack: Act 250 reform is something that needs to be addressed. But I think within the entire scheme of needs, it is by far not top of mind.
Jenn Jarecki: So when it comes to this work, Frank, what keeps you up at night?
Frank Knaack: A number of issues. You know, we have the immediate crises of, we have people who are currently unhoused, and we need to have solutions to that right away. We have freezing temperatures — you know, this is life-or-death situations for people.
Down looking at the pipeline, we need to ensure that the state is investing long-term so that we can build the housing needs that we need for our state. You know, that's something we at HHAV are working with our partners on right now, is a long-term visioning process to ensure that we can see, you know, where does Vermont need to be in 10 years, looking at the data? How many houses do we need to have constructed? What does the future of temporary shelter and emergency housing look like? And what do those needs look like in terms of dollar amounts every year, in construction? What are the wraparound service needs are gonna be not only today, but you know, 10 years from now, and how do we get there?
And so building out year-over-year plans to kind of realize that vision down the road — and so that's something we're really driving toward right now at HHAV.
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