Is Vermont homeless spending having an impact?

Published: Jul. 29, 2022 at 6:41 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A new report from Vermont’s auditor shows the state has spent almost half a billion dollars on fighting homelessness over the last six years.

Through the pandemic, Vermont paid hotels millions of dollars a month to keep unhoused Vermonters safe from COVID. That big spike in spending has pushed the price tag for homeless programs to over $450 million over the past six years. But despite the spending, the report says homelessness is still on the rise. In 2020, state officials recorded about 1,100 homeless Vermonters. This year, it’s more than doubled to over 2,700.

“So, after half a billion dollars, it arguably shouldn’t be going up, and the fact that it is, argues for a deeper dive into why,” said Vermont Auditor Doug Hoffer.

The reasons for homelessness are many and complex, including a housing shortage, mental health, substance use, and domestic violence.

Susan Merchant, a homeless person we spoke to in Montpelier, says one of the biggest issues she and others face in motels is accessing programs. “I think one of the biggest problems is understaffing. And the ones that are staffed are so overwhelmed that they can not control and or hold the things that are so important to people that need the services,” Merchant said.

State leaders say the hotel program was never designed to last forever and the Vermont Department for Children and Families has found permanent homes for 1,800 households. “That is far quicker and far more efficient than we have ever been,” said DCF’s Katarina Lisaius.

That’s thanks to an influx of federal housing money. And more housing units are on the way, but developers can only build so quickly. Meanwhile, homelessness is still on the rise. Officials say inflation and the state’s housing crisis are to blame. “Limitations in their income, predominantly they’re low-income Vermonters and it’s hard to find a permanent housing unit,” Lisaius said.

Hoffer stresses he isn’t criticizing the state’s decision to spend the money but says the rising numbers of homelessness should warrant a study of what is actually driving the root cause. “Until we have more data, you can’t fashion an appropriate response or build a strategy that’s built on data,” he said.

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