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Column: An opportunity to build a safer future

Published: 5/23/2020 10:10:05 PM
Modified: 5/23/2020 10:10:03 PM

Vermont has received $1.25 billion through the federal coronavirus relief act. This money has time constraints and restrictions. One of the allowable uses is providing for the needs of those without housing because of the COVID-19 public health emergency, and another is providing relief for renters hit hard by loss of work.

Since the middle of March, a heroic effort by state agencies and nonprofit community partners prevented an outbreak of COVID-19 among some of Vermont’s most vulnerable people.

The state drastically reduced the number of people in homeless shelters, and others left encampments, their cars, or moved from overcrowded shared living situations into motels to protect their health and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Housing with separate kitchen facilities, private bathrooms and sleeping areas with appropriate social distancing is essential for public health.

Today, approximately 2,000 Vermonters are safe and sheltered in this way. But come June 30, there’s no plan in place for where these people will live. They’ll likely go back to the situations that were deemed a public health emergency just two months ago. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to radically reduce homelessness in Vermont while continuing to control the spread of COVID-19.

The state is spending about $117,000 a day on the motels. This equates to about $3.5 million a month. The motels were a good emergency response, but the financial and social costs are not sustainable.

The Legislature must act quickly to allocate federal funding through the coronavirus relief fund. Affordable housing groups presented a plan as a starting point.

The goal is to fix a broken system, to prevent a future outbreak of COVID-19, and to build a bridge from the use of temporary motels to permanent housing options. Immediately issuing Vermont rental vouchers is an important first action. Pairing rental assistance with supportive services to prevent homelessness from recurring, and providing capital to enable organizations to lease, acquire, renovate and build affordable permanent housing are essential to eliminating homelessness and maintaining public health.

We can work together, but need support from the Agency of Human Services to advance our commitment to end homelessness using community-based solutions that offer dignity to people in crisis and enhance public health for everyone.

For many, ending homelessness has always been a moral issue. Today it’s a critical public health issue. The Legislature and administration can break the state’s cycle of emergency response to homelessness and replace it with permanent housing in Vermont communities that will serve vulnerable people for years to come.

The pandemic has revealed cracks in our social, cultural and political systems.

Low-income people and people of color have been disproportionately impacted.

Prior to COVID-19, housing shortages and high housing costs had increased homelessness beyond the capacity of service providers. This left many with few better options than a tent.

Today’s crisis is an opportunity for change. It is time for the Legislature and administration to act.

Andrew Winter is executive director of Twin Pines Housing Trust, Elizabeth Bridgewater is executive director of Windham Windsor Housing Trust, Nancy Owens is president of Housing Vermont, Eileen Peltier is executive director of Downstreet Housing and Community Development and Brenda Torpy is chief executive officer of Champlain Housing Trust.

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