As housing advocates converge on Montpelier today for the Governor's Summit on Housing for the Homeless, newly released data offer a ray of hope for Vermont's vexing homelessness problem.
The 2011 Point in Time Homeless Survey, a 24-hour count of the homeless conducted every January, shows that Vermont's homeless population on that day dropped 12 percent as compared to the January 2010 count — from 2782 individuals to 2450.
The count was conducted on January 26, 2011, but delays in getting Chittenden County totals stalled the report's release until last week. (To download the report, sans Chittenden Co. data, click here.)
In Chittenden County, the number of homeless and precariously housed individuals — people who are couch surfing, bunking with relatives or sleeping in garages and basements — fell from a record high of 907 last year to 707 this year. The number of homeless children age 18 and under also decreased in the count, from 256 in 2010 to 182 in 2011.
Rita Markley (pictured), executive director of Burlington-based emergency shelter provider COTS, sees an unmistakable trend — one she attributes to the modest economic recovery and money pumped into homeless prevention programs over the last few years.
Others, like Burlington Housing Authority executive director Paul Dettman, see "spin" and numbers that "don't pass the straight-face test."
COTS began counting Chittenden County's homeless in the mid-1990s, long before the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began requiring the annual census. In 2008, Markely saw the start of what became a "huge upsurge" in the number of homeless counted in Greater Burlington.
Last year's high of 907 homeless or precariously housed in Chittenden County meant that families and individuals were also staying longer in emergency shelters, Markley says — often six months or more rather than three or four months.
"What we have here is how the Great Recession affected Vermont," Markley concludes. "We may not have the same type of housing foreclosure rates [as other states], but there was real pain."
Markley credits this year's decrease to 707 homeless and precariously housed, in part, to the efforts of the COTS Homelessness Prevention Fund. That provides emergency, one-time grants to prevent people from losing their housing.
In 2008, COTS pooled $250,000 in privately raised funds and $120,000 in state money to create a fund that would help people in danger of losing their home because of job loss, medical bills or major car repairs. Markley says the fund averted homelessness for 351 households during the first year and 450 households in the second year. On top of that, the legislature and governor this year agreed to dedicate $1.7 million toward homelessness prevention.
That's the good news. The bad news, for people who do fall through the cracks, Markley says, is that finding new housing is a "long, difficult road," particularly in a college town like Burlington, which has one of the lowest vacancy rates (1 percent) in the country.
"There are so many college students and others who can easily pay rent and have good credit," she says.
Dettman, the Burlington Housing Authority director, largely discounts the homeless count numbers, arguing that the data are "really poor."
"A point in time is a point in time. Even a good point in time doesn't tell you a lot about what your programs should be," says Dettman (pictured with BHA staffers Kelley Newall, left, and Janet Green). "This is being done because HUD mandates it. It's not being done because the community decided it would be good to collect this information and then use it to determine which programs were working and which weren't."
BHA staffers say the figures raise several red flags. According to the 2011 count, the Bennington homeless population skyrocketed from 304 last year to 521 this year. "That doesn't pass the straight-face test," Dettman comments, suggesting that some people may have been double-counted.
Asked about the homelessness surge in 2009, Dettman believes it had less to do with the economy that with how hard volunteers looked. "There was an aggressive attempt to increase outreach in 2009, so that's part of why you had this sudden increase. This decrease is inexplicable to me. If you look objectively at the number of dollars being spent on homeless folks, the number of dollars being spent on homeless families is up dramatically."
Homelessness is more than just economic, Dettman says. Often, it's linked to substance abuse and mental health issues.
Additionally, Dettman says BHA staffers found individuals counted as homeless who should not have been. Among them: 12 women housed at domestic violence shelter Sophie's Place in Burlington who have guaranteed, transferable Section 8 housing vouchers.
"They live there with Section 8 vouchers," Dettman says. "When they finish their time there, they can take the voucher and go somewhere else. They are not homeless. They're not at risk of homelessness and yet they get counted as 'sheltered' because HUD has weird definitions of who can get counted."
Dettman says reliable and complete data are the key to forming good housing policy, but he admits that finding the money — and the will among some social service providers — to make that happen will be difficult.
"The Point in Time should not be taken as gospel and we should be very careful about conclusions that one reaches from it — either that the problem is in crisis or the problem is being solved."
Melinda Bussino, co-chair of the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness, says better counting is certainly a factor in the uptick.
"Some of the increases that we see are because we do a better job of finding the more hidden homeless people," says Bussino, who is executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center.
For her part, Markley says the Chittenden County team is extremely careful about how it counts the homeless to avoid duplication. Since each county coordinates its own counting efforts, Markley says she can't speak to the accuracy of other figures. And while the homeless count might not be comprehensive, it's valuable and important as a "snapshot."
"It's a snapshot that we have taken over many, many years. So if the number jumps consistently, it means something," she says.
Bussino callled today during a break in the homeless summit. She says the group is batting around some creative solutions for homelessness. One idea involves creating "risk pools" for landlords — essentially insurance against damages from high-risk tenants who might otherwise be homeless. In fact, just last week COTS won a $75,000 grant through the Vermont Community Foundation to do just that. Markley says the money will create a "risk guarantee fund" that will provide "insurance" for 10 families whom landlords would consider high risk.
Policy aside, Markley says there's a more compelling reason to do the homeless count.
"These are people the rest of the world doesn't see and often get walked by," she says. "And this is a way to make them real, and their lives real."