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Probing Questions Assess Burlington's Homeless Population

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Last Monday, Wayne Latulippe took a break from sawing and stacking wood to greet five strangers who showed up unannounced at his home. After they had admired his panoramic lake view, Latulippe invited the group inside. Then he patiently answered 50 questions, which ranged from, "Do you have a kidney disease?" to "Is there anyone who thinks you owe them money?"

Latulippe, whose street name is Caspar — or sometimes, Diablo — is one of Burlington's homeless. He was among roughly 40 people surveyed that day in an effort to assemble detailed profiles of Burlington's itinerant population. The tally is part of a nationwide initiative called the 100,000 Homes Campaign started by the nonprofit Community Solutions. Eighty volunteers are spending three days this week roaming the streets, encampments and the most remote reaches of the city to find people like him.

Latulippe has "been digging for the last four months" to construct an elaborate shelter in a location he asked Seven Days not to disclose — and local law enforcement would likely ignore even if they knew about it. With a plastic-handled shovel, the 47-year-old former roofer and his friend excavated an SUV-size cavity into an embankment. A roof made from branches and tarps overhangs the entryway, which doubles as an earthen front deck. A ladder against the back wall leads to a second egress.

Inside, a log fire was keeping the place toasty. Furnishings included a small table topped with a tablecloth, a bench built into the hill, a battery-powered CD player, a golf club, a broom, and a plastic crate with English muffins and a tin of coffee. A turf rug partially covered the dirt floor. Outside was another container of clean sponges and laundry detergent.

With pride, Latulippe pointed to two solar-powered street lamps out front — a gift from his mother.

Latulippe is just the sort of fellow who is likely to be skipped over during the annual Point-in-Time Count. Conducted in shelters on a cold January night, when, the hope is, most homeless people are inside, the tally is organized by a group of state and local agencies. In 2014, they found 532 homeless people in Chittenden County.

But Janet Green of the Burlington Housing Authority said she's not confident the 532 number is accurate. As an alternative, the 100,000 Homes initiative aims to collect nuanced information about the chronically homeless. Their goal is not necessarily numbers, but people's stories, in order to assist the most vulnerable members of the homeless population.

As part of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, people get a score based on their confidential survey answers, which is used to gauge the likelihood that they'll die on the streets. The goal is to use that information to house them, prioritizing the neediest. The resulting database is not public.

The initiative falls under what's called the Housing First model — which advocates providing shelter immediately, rather than requiring substance abuse, mental health or other treatment. According to the model's proponents, it often costs less to subsidize apartments than to pay the medical expenses for those left out in the cold.

After the surveys, organizers encourage cities to "cut through red tape" and find ways to house 2.5 percent of the chronically homeless each month. The campaign, which started four years ago, recently surpassed its goal of housing 100,000 people.

In Burlington, volunteers were under specific orders not to suggest that participation would lead to housing — but they did give out $5 gift certificates to Dunkin' Donuts. The city already has a 1 percent vacancy rate and a waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers.

Despite the tight housing market, Green contends that there are housing options, such as the Shelter Plus Care program, designed to help the hard-to-serve homeless by providing rental assistance coupled with supportive services. Green is hopeful they can start housing two or three of the most vulnerable people each month.

Some homeless people came on their own to be surveyed at the First Congregational Church on South Winooski Avenue — which served as the base camp for volunteers outfitted with clipboards and conspicuous lime green T-shirts. The first shifts of survey workers departed at 4:30 a.m. on Monday.

At 2 p.m., three volunteers — part of the second shift — began a five-mile traverse, during which they would encounter several empty encampments and three homeless people. Tammy Boudah, a clinician with the HowardCenter's Street Outreach Team, led the group.

A little south of North Beach, a 21-year-old woman who introduced herself as Whisper leaned against a tree several feet from the water's edge. A barely visible dog, curled up in a sleeping bag, and a banjo in a case sat by her side. Martha Maksym, executive director of United Way of Chittenden County, asked if she'd take part in the survey, and she agreed.

Later, when asked if she was homeless, she responded, "I identify as a traveler." A tattoo of the word "ephemeral" arced around her right eye, and she explained that she prefers to squat or stay with friends rather than hold down a job and stay in one place.

"I just didn't think it was pertinent to me," she said of the survey after she'd taken it — and the free coffee coupon. The Burlington native said she's back here visiting, but she plans to leave for New Orleans in two weeks. Bundled in a puffy black jacket and wool mittens, she added, "Obviously, I'm going south for warmth. I wouldn't know how to survive in the winter."

Latulippe, who's said he's on the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher, has never spent a winter outside, but he plans to this year. Surveying his own neatly stacked pile of wood, he noted it was not nearly enough. He also pointed to a wooden club — "solid hickory" — that he calls "Betty" and has kept on hand since a knife-bearing intruder entered his premises.

When the volunteer read the question, "Do you have enough money to meet your expenses?" he laughed heartily. "Ha, no!" He gets food stamps — half of which he sells for cash — and he has Medicaid, but beyond that, he's on his own. Latulippe said he can make $200 last two to three months.

"This is my oasis!" he shouted, grinning and gesturing at his self-built abode. "I've had enough controversy in the last five years to last a lifetime" — a reference to the three years he spent in jail for a domestic-violence conviction that he still disputes.

Latulippe's health is good, he said, and although he misses the seven children he has with his ex-wife, life in the outdoors suits him. "I've got to cut wood until doomsday," he said cheerfully, returning to work as the volunteers traipsed off in search of the next person.

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