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Homeless Numbers Are Down In Chittenden County, But Not Everyone Is Counted

Image of downtown Burlington, Vermont from above.
For the past four years, the winter count of Chittenden County's homeless population has gone down. But some advocates say the data don't show the whole story.

Officials say a late-January snapshot of the homeless population in Chittenden County counted 291 homeless people, a 12 percent decrease since January 2016. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger says that shows progress toward ending homelessness, but some advocates say the data don’t show the whole story.Weinberger’s takeaway from the new data is: “We can make progress, and that it is possible to envision a world not that far into the future where we put an end to homelessness.”

Along with the 12 percent reduction since last year, Weinberger says there's been a 45 percent decrease since 2014. Some groups showed even larger reductions.

“The number of chronically homeless individuals has dropped from a little over 100 in 2015 to 44 today,” Weinberger said.

Because homelessness makes people difficult to keep track of, the number is tracked by annual snapshots of the homeless population. One night at the end of January, outreach workers and social services agencies literally count the number of individual people who are homeless.

Margaret Bozik, co-chair of the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, says the count helps the federal government make funding decisions to help the people officially defined as homeless.

“And what that means,” Bozik says, “is people who are sleeping in shelters and in motel rooms paid for by the state, and longer-term temporary housing that the federal government calls transitional housing — and of course out in the woods, in their cars, in sheds and in other places that aren't meant for human habitation.”

"The number of chronically homeless individuals has dropped from a little over 100 in 2015 to 44 today." — Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger

For the past four years those numbers have been going down, and there’s no question that that’s good news.

But Rita Markley, the executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter, says the snapshot doesn't tell the full story.

“While it may be an accurate picture for single adults,” Markley says, “it is a real misleading number for families experiencing homelessness, because they're not included in the count.”

Markley isn't saying that the people doing the count will simply not count a homeless family staying in a shelter. What she’s saying is that the majority of families experiencing homelessness aren't in the places where workers are counting.

"I just don't want families with kids to be invisible. And they already are, because it's not the huddled person in a doorway." — Rita Markley, Committee on Temporary Shelter

She says between 60 and 75 percent of homeless families are doubled up — staying with friends and relatives for days or weeks at a time without any set lease or sense of permanence.

Markley says those people would never be counted as homeless by the survey, but they often need just as much help as someone staying in a shelter.

Markley adds she's not trying to minimize the progress the data show; she wants people to know this count doesn't show the whole picture.

“I just don't want families with kids to be invisible, and they already are because it's not the huddled person in a doorway," she says. "When it's a kid with a backpack and their little narrow shoulders, you would never know they're homeless.”

The survey is carried out using a definition of homelessness set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Markley says there have been advocacy efforts underway for years to expand that definition to give a fuller picture.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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