Vt. lawmakers meet to address emergency housing, poverty

Published: Nov. 18, 2022 at 5:39 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers and state officials met Friday to wrestle with how to sustain emergency housing programs this winter -- and in the future -- in the face of diminishing federal support.

A joint committee of House and Senate lawmakers is searching for short-term solutions to a long-term problem. “It’s such a complex range of needs. But what I’m seeing more and more is just people who are being squeezed out of the housing market,” Good Samaritan Haven executive director Rick Deangelis testified to lawmakers.

Housing, utility, and mental health service providers outlined a grim picture of human service needs heading into the winter. “During this pandemic, the work we have done addressing people in crisis has grown dramatically,” said Sue Minter with Capstone Community Action. The groups urged lawmakers to stay focused on keeping people housed and investing in programs that are showing results to keep people in their homes.

Unprecedented federal pandemic aid has kept a roof over almost all Vermonters for the past two years. “Two-thousand, eight-hundred and six households have exited homelessness during the pandemic. To me, that’s a remarkable achievement,” said DCF Interim Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen.

But that cash is winding down faster than expected and state leaders say using state dollars to continue the programs is not sustainable. A change in federal guidance means Vermont can now keep $37 million to extend some programs until the end of March. That money will be funneled toward those at extreme risk of becoming homeless, people with chronic health issues, and those with mental health challenges. But a long-term solution remains elusive.

State data shows that homelessness has spiked and is still on the rise. That’s despite a recent audit showing Vermont has spent $456 million over the last six years on emergency shelter programs. Chen says weaning the state from federal funding while still supporting the systems is a major dilemma. “How do we deal with taking the finger out of the dike and also addressing the problem of the flood that comes afterward,” he said.

The legislative session is about two months away, where housing, mental health, substance use, and workforce development will once again play a major role. “There are a lot of moving parts to this and it has to be a holistic approach to housing people,” said Sen Ruth Hardy, D-Addison County.

A key committee next month is expected to give the official green to use the $37 million for housing support into the spring.

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