How many Vermonters are unhoused? The state’s best answer is likely incomplete
This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
BENNINGTON – On a cold, gray morning in late January, three women in Bennington packed into a car, each with a clipboard and a stack of surveys in hand. Those surveys contained a key question: Where did you stay last Wednesday night?
This team of service providers was playing a small role in a massive undertaking: the annual, federally-mandated point-in-time count, a national effort to tally every person experiencing homelessness on a single night each January. It’s a sort of national census of people who are unhoused — a snapshot that provides a window into how homelessness is changing across the country and over time.
While it’s relatively straightforward to count people staying at shelters and in state-sponsored motel rooms, the task at hand for this Bennington group was far more elusive: tallying the number of people living outside.
Roxanne Carelli, interim director of Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, knew her small team likely wouldn’t be able to capture every unsheltered person in the area before the federal deadline. They’d already been delayed by bad weather twice. She listed off some of the places she has known people to set up camp: a public park along the river downtown, near the food shelf; behind some of the big-box stores and chain restaurants on the edge of town. She directed the car toward a mountain road pull-off in the direction of Woodford.
“Especially in the summer, and nicer weather, that’s where a lot of our unsheltered individuals camp,” she said. “Right now, sporadic, whether anyone’s there or not.”
Over the last two years, the point-in-time count has produced a statistic that has turned heads in the Green Mountain State: It’s shown that Vermont has the second-highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country. It has also revealed that Vermont holds another, less widely-cited distinction. Over the same two-year timeframe, the state did a better job than any other of sheltering people — that is, keeping people experiencing homelessness in some form of emergency shelter or transitional housing.
But a lot has changed since last year’s count. After the state began winding down the expanded, pandemic-era version of the motel voucher program last summer — booting hundreds of unhoused Vermonters out of motel rooms — communities have witnessed an uptick in people living unsheltered.
Accurately counting people who are unsheltered — which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as having a “primary nighttime location” like a vehicle or the streets — is notoriously difficult. People may move around frequently; they may not want to be found. And in a rural state like Vermont, service providers often lack the resources to fan out to the remote corners where unsheltered people might be staying. (Advocates also point out that the federal department employs a narrow definition of homelessness, so the official count, by design, doesn’t capture people staying with relatives or sleeping on someone’s couch.)
As the nature of homelessness in Vermont changes, so could the state’s ability to count people who are unhoused. That could impact the public’s understanding of the problem — and the state’s attempts to combat it.
A more accurate tally
In 2020, Vermont made a bold choice. When the pandemic broke out, the state offered virtually anyone who was homeless a voucher for a motel room. The idea was to keep people out of cramped shelters where the virus could spread. This constituted a major expansion of an existing and ongoing program that offers vouchers to people facing an immediate crisis or during the harshest winter months. The state could pull off this scaling-up because federal COVID-19 relief funding covered the cost.
People who had been living in precarious situations — doubled up with relatives, couch surfing, living in cars or tents — were able to come into formal shelter, maybe for the first time, said Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College who studies homelessness. That influenced the first pandemic-era point-in-time count, in January 2021.
“We were able to get a much more accurate census of the population experiencing homelessness,” Sosin said. “That first count really captured what we always knew was happening just under the surface or out of sight in Vermont.”
That year’s count showed a massive spike in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Vermont: a jump from about 1,100 in 2020 to over 2,500 in 2021.
That rise can be attributed, in part, to the fact that so many more people were in shelter — and thus much easier to count, Sosin said.
But since then, the number of unhoused people in Vermont has continued to increase. Meanwhile, the state has continued the expanded, pandemic-era version of the motel program — a matter of intense debate — keeping unhoused Vermonters inside.
In January 2023, according to the annual analysis of the count from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Vermont sheltered 96% of its homeless population, the highest rate in the country.
But last year, federal funding for the pandemic-era program ran dry. Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has argued that the program is too expensive to continue, and in early June, the state evicted around 800 people from hotels and motels across the state.
After that, lawmakers struck a last minute deal to keep the roughly two thousand remaining people sheltered until this coming spring: people with disabilities, families, and elderly Vermonters. But barring another extension, those who haven’t moved into other shelter or housing options will lose their vouchers on April 1. And people receiving month-long vouchers through the state’s adverse weather policy will lose the benefit on March 15.
To temporarily shelter those exiting the motels, the Scott administration has proposed standing up emergency shelters by the spring, though key questions about the plan remain up in the air. In the meantime, shelters across the state are generally full, as are the state-sponsored motel rooms.
As people get turned away from shelter, more are likely living outside — making them harder to count and harder to help.
Back in Bennington at the mountainside pull-off, Carelli’s team noted one person living out of a series of vehicles. Service providers had already counted the woman; Carelli’s team knew her well. She cooks out of a camper and offers food “to anyone who comes around, even the truckers if there’s a snowstorm,” Carelli said.
The woman has a few dogs, which have posed a barrier to accessing shelter, Carelli said. But she also wants to stay in Bennington, where “there’s no motel rooms,” said Jessica Luther, case manager and housing navigator for Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless. People calling 211 can get placed anywhere there are vacancies, “from Bennington up to Burlington,” Luther said. The woman at the pull-off would need to leave her broken-down truck there, and her car isn’t good in the snow, so she worries about traveling, Luther said.
The group doubled back into town and headed toward the local food shelf. Often, there are unhoused people behind the building, or under the bridge over the river nearby. But that morning, the water was high, and no one was there. Carelli led the group across the street, to a small clearing along the water called People’s Park.
“When the motels first stopped — exited everyone this past year — this is where a lot of people came,” Carelli said.
Soon after that, the town shut down the park, citing health and safety concerns. The closure only lasted a few days, but that kind of enforcement can make people scatter — and hide, Carelli said.
That morning, no one was camping in the park. “Is it because they’re moving around today because the weather’s nice?” Carelli said. “Or have they been pushed along?”
Municipalities limiting and enforcing where people can camp can make it more difficult to count people who are unsheltered, said Jesse Rabinowitz, campaign and communications director at the National Homelessness Law Center.
“We’re seeing cities and states across the country criminalize homelessness and displace people from areas they would prefer to be, pushing them further into the margins, further into the woods, making them not only harder to count, but also harder for them to access the services they need to get support and get into housing,” Rabinowitz said.
But there are also capacity issues that impede how well service providers are able to count people. Carelli noted that her organization is currently hiring to create a larger, dedicated outreach team – and until they do, they are choosing not to approach some of the larger encampments on the edge of town for the count.
In Washington County, service providers noted an increase in the number of people unsheltered during this year’s count, said Rick DeAngelis, co-executive director of Good Samaritan Haven. They registered 47 people as unsheltered, he said, compared to 32 last year. But their team focused primarily on the communities where they already have a base — Montpelier, Barre, and Berlin — and wasn’t able to get out into the further reaches of the county.
“We just don’t have the person power to really be doing much in those other communities,” he said.
Extenuating circumstances get in the way, too. In Bennington, the unsheltered count was delayed multiple times by bouts of rain and snow. In Brattleboro, two out of three outreach workers had COVID-19 during the count, said Karli Schrade, director of shelters at the Groundworks Collaborative.
The difficulty of counting people as they become unsheltered makes it difficult to predict what this year’s point-in-time count will reveal, Sosin, the researcher, said.
“It’s hard to anticipate what that count will look like,” she said.
The murkiness surrounding this year’s count could later impact decision-making at both the state and federal levels.
The Vermont Department for Children and Families uses the annual count to help inform both funding and policy decisions, said Lily Sojourner, interim director of the department’s Office of Economic Opportunity, in an email. Sojourner was quick to point out the limitations of the count, though, and noted that the department uses reports from programs and caseload data to inform its decisions as well.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the annual count, does not use point-in-time count data in any of its current funding formulas, according to Christine Baumann, a public affairs officer for HUD based in Boston. But when doling out grants, HUD does reward local coalitions that can demonstrate they have succeeded in reducing homelessness, as measured by the annual count, along with other data sources, Baumann said.
For Sosin, this year’s count comes during an inflection point for homelessness in Vermont, as lawmakers and the Scott administration debate over the fate of the pandemic-era motel voucher program — and what will come after it.
“If we begin to lose track of the numbers of people that are experiencing homelessness, that’s really going to undermine our efforts to bring to bear solutions at the scale that’s needed,” Sosin said.
At the end of a morning of counting in Bennington, Carelli’s team had found only one unsheltered person. Pulling back into the parking lot behind the family shelter, she said she hopes others have gotten counted as they’ve gone to the food shelf or the free clinic — but she knows they could be missing people. And if and when the motel programs phase out in a few months, she’s bracing for even more people to become unsheltered. That could both make the problem worse — and, as people scatter, harder to quantify.
“It’s going to be a crisis all over again,” she said. “It’s already a crisis. But it’s going to be… devastating.”
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.