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Helping the Homeless?

Local Matters


Published February 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Over the past four years, advocates for Vermont's homeless population have learned to read between the lines. On January 25, the Department of Housing and Urban Development trumpeted a record $1.4 billion in grants to fund emergency homeless shelters. That includes nearly $2.9 million for Vermont.

HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson made the announcement about the "unprecedented level of funds" at a California shelter, with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger by his side. "President Bush is deeply committed to supporting our most vulnerable neighbors," said Jackson, "and today I am pleased to reaffirm that commitment."

But Vermont's affordable-housing agencies, which help people move out of homelessness, have been saying for months that their budgets are being cut. Claudia Donovan, director of rental assistance at the Burlington Housing Authority (BHA), confirms that's true; the federal government has actually slashed $400,000 from the agency's vital Section 8 voucher program, despite its boast about record funding. "Aren't they sneaky?" Donovan asks rhetorically.

Section 8 vouchers, which are part of a different grant cycle and therefore went unmentioned at last month's press conference, help defray housing costs for seniors, the disabled and working families who can't afford skyrocketing rents. The program pays a portion of a recipient's rent. If a Section 8 recipient loses his or her job, the government will pitch in even more to keep that person off the streets.

BHA Director Paul Dettman notes that, thanks to the grants announced last month, his agency will be able to add seven housing units for needy families, but his threatened Section 8 program funds 1711. He calls the administration's plan to end homelessness in a decade "a con game." "We've said time and time again, 'You're talking out of both sides of your mouth,'" he says of the government.

Richard Williams, director of the Vermont State Housing Authority, says the Section 8 program is what really gets people off the streets. "It's been the backbone of HUD for 30 years," he says. Williams points out that because of budget cuts, this year the state of Vermont will actually lose 73 of its 6000 affordable housing units. And he predicts that, because of the war in Iraq, steeper cuts will be on the way in 2006.

"Doublespeak" is how Williams describes HUD Secretary Jackson's comments about record funding to fight homelessness. "It's not good for us," he says. "That's the bottom line."