I wanted to share with you a piece I wrote in response to the currently ongoing issue of the exiting of thousands of Vermonters from motels around the state. I believe that we have a moral obligation to help the most vulnerable people in our society. Please help me spread this message.
Housing the Unhoused: A Moral Dilemma
Houselessness: The canary in the coalmine of our morals and economic system.
Before the pandemic, 1200 to 1400 Vermonters experienced houselessness on any given night. As a state, we generally accepted this as “normal.” When the pandemic hit, we used pandemic funding to shelter these individuals and families in motels across the state. We not only sought to protect houseless Vermonters from COVID-19 but also prevent the spread of infection across our communities.
As COVID-19 and the funds to respond to the pandemic recede, Vermont still has a shared benefit in protecting unhoused Vermonters. We can save money, create better long-term outcomes, and fulfill our moral obligation as a society, or we can consciously put people back on the streets, costing us more money in the long run.
More than 2,800 Vermonters–roughly 80% of all unhoused people in the state–currently are sheltered in motels thanks to the state’s GA Emergency Housing Program. Vermonters staying in motels include families with children, working individuals and neighbors for whom the cost of housing is no longer in reach, and elderly and disabled Vermonters living on fixed incomes. An assessment of motel guests, conducted by the Agency of Human Services (AHS) from October to November 2022, found that the majority of people in motels lost their housing in recent years. Only 37 households lived out of state prior to joining the GA Emergency Housing Program.
Since the start of the pandemic, homelessness has almost tripled, leaving Vermont to have the second highest rate of the homelessness in the country. Both the budget proposed by the governor and the one passed by the legislature do not address the scale of this crisis. While many resources have been put into working towards longer term solutions, the budget is short on bridge funding to shelter people while the longer-term solutions are constructed.
As a result, nearly 3000 people, including 500 to 600 children, Vermonters with very significant medical conditions and pregnant women will lose their shelter this summer. Exiting these individuals creates a greater cost to taxpayers in the form of emergency room visits, exacerbated mental health needs and much more. We know that businesses and downtowns suffer when there is a surge of unhoused people in the streets. We know that local government expenses go up when there are more people living on the streets or in encampments. We know that emergency room costs increase with more people living on the streets. We know that children suffer increased severe long-term health effects from homelessness. We know that people with substance abuse disorders are more likely to die or face emergency services and less likely to get help when they live on the streets. We know that women face greater risk of sexual assault and violence when homeless and all experiencing homelessness are three to four times more likely to be victims of a crime.
Is this what we want?
With his veto, the Governor has forced two options to the table.
The legislature can override his veto, locking in the displacement of well over 2000 individuals and costing us more money in the long run and causing great harm.
The legislature can sustain his veto, leading to a new budget that either a) further reduces funding to appease the Governor or b) raises or shifts funding to fulfill our moral obligation while also being fiscally prudent in the short and long term.
Do we, as a society, claim there is no more money within an $8.5 billion budget? Do we actively choose to cut off spending money on temporary housing while the Agency of Human Services develops a last-minute and inadequate plan to ease the situation in the future? Will we knowingly put people out on the streets again, aware that many will not find housing, but magically believing that there will be minimal community or individual consequences?
The pandemic has accelerated the state’s crisis of housing and homelessness. New data shows that more than 3,000 Vermonters are now experiencing homelessness, and that homelessness among families with children grew 36% in the last year. At the same time, the pandemic has helped us to understand that we do not need to accept homelessness as our normal. Working together to keep Vermonters safe as we address this crisis benefits us all.
There is a clear choice before the Governor and the legislature. We CAN invest in solutions that shelter our most vulnerable population and benefit all Vermonters, just as we all benefited from the GA Emergency Housing Program during the pandemic. We CAN also invest in more permanent affordable and transition housing to further reduce the long-term costs. As citizens of this great state, now is the time to chime in and let your legislators and the Governor know where your priorities lie. I believe it is both morally right and the most fiscally responsible decision to keep people housed while providing better services for kids and those who need support to get back on their feet.
Lt. Governor David Zuckerman