State Auditor: Vermont's Soaring Spending on Homelessness Lacks Vision | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


State Auditor: Vermont's Soaring Spending on Homelessness Lacks Vision


Published July 28, 2022 at 4:42 p.m.
Updated August 16, 2022 at 5:24 p.m.

A sign at the former Sears Lane encampment - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • A sign at the former Sears Lane encampment
Vermont has spent an eye-popping $456 million over the past six years on programs to help those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, according to a report that State Auditor Doug Hoffer issued on Thursday.

But despite tripling this spending during the pandemic, service providers told auditors, the problem only seems to be getting worse.

“It is not clear there is a unified vision of what a steady state system to address homelessness should look like,” Hoffer’s report found.

Lacking such a strategy, the report warns, the state could continue spending indefinitely without truly understanding whether the money is having the intended effect.

In an interview with Seven Days, Hoffer stressed that he was not criticizing any particular strategy that the state has funded. This includes the push to build more affordable housing and the decision to move people from shelters to motel rooms during the pandemic.

Rather, he said that the state needs to designate ways to measure whether the spending is having an impact. “A lot of people are working very hard, but I’m not sure how success is defined,” Hoffer said. “I can’t audit criteria that don't exist.”

The state could, for instance, track the number of available shelter beds, or how many affordable housing units have been built, the report says. Hoffer said it’s not his job to identify specific goals, but that lawmakers and the administration should.

Homelessness spiked sharply during the pandemic even as the resources — which included federal relief funds — tripled. In early 2020, 1,110 homeless Vermont residents were tallied in the annual point-in-time count. The following year, that figure soared to 2,591. It increased again this year, to 2,780.

The report notes several factors driving the increase. The state expanded eligibility for its “general assistance” emergency housing program that previously only placed at-risk people in motels and hotels during cold weather.

The social distancing required to prevent transmission of COVID-19 caused people who had been staying with friends and family to seek the hotel vouchers offered under the program. The soaring cost of housing and the increase in conversions to short-term rentals also contributed to the spike, the report found.

Despite efforts to reduce the population in hotels and motels, 2,372 people remain housed there as of April, including 1,850 adults and 522 children, the report found.

The figure remains high even though an estimated 1,800 people who had been homeless got permanent housing during the pandemic, according to the Department for Children and Families.

“Where are all the people who are newly homeless, who were not homeless last week, coming from?” Hoffer asked.

Gordon Sawyer has been bouncing around the different motels since the pandemic began, and he’s getting desperate. He’s been staying at the Motel 6 in Colchester for a few weeks, and sees no end in sight.

“I absolutely feel stuck,” Sawyer said. “I feel like I’m never going to get into a place.”

The state is paying $4,030 per month for him to stay at the motel, he said. For that kind of money, he feels like he could get into an apartment or even a rent-to-own arrangement, he said.

“Instead, I don’t even have a refrigerator or a microwave in my room,” he said.

The report stressed that the unprecedented spending undoubtedly has helped people experiencing homelessness. State and nonprofit homeless services providers also noted that the pandemic improved how they coordinate efforts.

But they also told auditors that they had concerns about the cost of the general assistance programs, and the lack of mental health care and other support services for people in the rooms.

Meantime, the construction of new affordable housing units in the state is clearly a positive development, Hoffer said, but to what extent they are reducing homelessness is unclear.

“We heard frustrations that despite all the investment in new units dedicated to homeless households, the problem seems to be getting worse,” the report found.
“In other words, while the newly constructed units are extremely valuable for those who reside in them, Vermont is not building its way out of the problem.”

State policy requires new affordable housing developments to set aside units for those at risk of homelessness, but that doesn’t mean those people will necessarily have sufficient income to afford to live there, he explained.

“Where is the equivalent focus and attention and devotion on the wage side?” Hoffer asked.

DCF Commissioner Sean Brown said he disagreed with Hoffer’s characterization of the state’s homelessness strategy lacking vision or measurable goals. The program was initiated to keep people safe in a pandemic, and it’s done that; Brown knew of no homeless people dying from COVID-19.

In addition, the 1,800 people who transitioned out of homelessness is another measure of success, he said.

The demand for the motel program remains high because of multiple social and economic factors related to the pandemic, such as people viewing Vermont as a safe haven and relocating here.

“The pandemic had unprecedented impacts on Vermont in terms of housing that I don’t think anyone could have anticipated,” Brown said.

He cited some housing trends: People are remaining in rental housing because they can't afford to buy a home; new residents are renting instead of buying; people are unable to afford rent increases after properties are sold; and inflation is driving costs higher. These factors contribute to a surge in newly homeless, he said.

His department doesn't view its mission as ending homelessness, but of limiting it as much as possible.

We want it to be rare when it occurs, brief when it does occur, and non-recurring for that household,” Brown said.

As for people who feel stuck in motels, Brown said he understands and agrees that such rooms are suitable merely as safe havens during the pandemic.

 "It's not a
long-term housing strategy, nor is it permanent housing," he said. "We certainly recognize that and sympathize with that individual."

The report was produced by deputy state auditor Tim Ashe and researcher analyst Fran Hodgins. Read the full report here:
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.

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