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New documentary tells intimate stories of housing and food insecurity in Vermont

An older woman with a red shirt stands in front of a small white house with a serious expression on her face.
Kingdom County Productions
Vermont had the second-highest homelessness rate per capita in the nation in 2023.

Housing and food insecurity are realities that many Vermonters know all to well. Just last week, hundreds of people lost their eligibility for state-subsidized motel and hotel rooms. Two in five people in Vermont are experiencing hunger, according to Hunger Free Vermont.

These dual challenges — not having enough food or an affordable place to live — are the subject of a new documentary by acclaimed Vermont filmmaker Bess O'Brien. In "Just Getting By," O'Brien shares stories of families living in state-funded motel rooms and people who rely on community kitchens or local food banks for their meals.

The film follows more than a half dozen people as they navigate different housing options, from the motel program to shelters to camping outdoors. O'Brien said one of her priorities was to show the diversity among people struggling with housing insecurity.

"I think many times we have a stereotype in our head of who is somebody who's homeless, or who is food insecure" O'Brien told Vermont Edition. Her film features people from many different backgrounds, from a retired nurse struggling to make ends meet with her Social Security check, to a recent immigrant and stay-at-home mom whose husband sometimes works 20 hours a day to support their family.

"These are people with courage and dignity, and people who persevere through the hardest times," O'Brien said. "Many of them work two to three jobs. Many, many of the people that I am in contact with in this film are people who just want a decent life."

O'Brien will tour the film around the state for the next three weeks, beginning with a screening in Burlington on Friday, March 22. The tour will close at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier on Friday, April 12. Tickets are $15 or pay what you can.

Editor's note: Vermont Public is a media sponsor of the film tour.

Broadcast live on Thursday, March 21, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.