Although nights may not be as bitter cold, new challenges face Vermont’s homeless population now that spring has sprung.
Elizabeth Ready, director of the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes, sees those challenges every day and is working to help find a safe, permanent home for Vermont’s homeless population.
Warmer nights mean an end to warming shelters throughout the state. “That means that some people are immediately looking to get into permanent shelter,” says Ready. “So we do see a little bit of an increase at this time as people that were formerly spending the night in the warming shelters are looking for a place to go.”
Ready says that there are people who camp once it warms up, but that many don’t think camping is the best idea for homeless families and youth. “Another thing is that many of the people in the warming shelters have illnesses that really should preclude them from being outside,” says Ready. She explains that at the shelter right now, there are people with emphysema, MS and cancer. “Our youngest person is a newborn and our oldest is 74. You see people with mental illness, people that need medication management, so more and more people that are seeking shelter are not necessarily healthy people who can just go out and thrive outside. So I think that the end goal always has to be permanent, safe, stable housing,” says the shelter director.
Ready says that Vermont has seen a recent increase in homeless families. “It’s a pretty simple formula: The cost of housing exceeds people’s ability to pay, even when people are working. A lot of people are working now at the shelter, mostly everybody, but they may be working at a fast food place, supermarket, on the farm, in the nursing home … and they’re just not making enough to pay the rent."
Rent is expensive, says Ready, especially in Chittenden and Addison County, and it’s hard for people to compete with students and young professionals in the housing market. “What we try to do is work with people to bridge the gap, whether it means employment, or getting a housing choice voucher or Vermont rental subsidies, whatever it’s going to take.”
Ready says the young homeless population, especially in the LGBT community, is especially vulnerable. “They may be healthy and young, but people are very vulnerable … to abuse, they are vulnerable to being taken advantage of, so we really don’t like to see youth camping, especially in the LGBT population, because we just don’t want to see any harm come to them,” says Ready. “The thing is to create really safe spaces where people feel supported, people feel that they have a sense of community, a sense of belonging. So, it’s really more than just a room or just a shelter, it’s a sense that they belong somewhere.”
And that’s exactly what Ready tries to do at the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes – create a safe space. She says her excellent staff, all thoroughly screened before being hired, are at the shelter 24 hours per day, seven days a week, and that they have counselors with substance abuse backgrounds available to talk at all hours of the day. “We also just have a really safe environment at night. There are deadlines that people have to be in and there is staff there all around the clock and there are always people there who can sit down and help you try to problem solve, whether it’s a housing issue or trying to get a ride to work, just try to work things out,” she says.
One thing that Ready says keeps her hopeful and has been a “tremendous help” to the shelter is Vermont’s rental subsidy program. “It has been a lifesaver for a lot of people. What happens is if we get a shelter full of people and we can’t move them, especially in the winter, it becomes a destitute situation. People don’t have much hope, they don’t know how they’ll get out … So we what we do is work with this rental subsidy,” Says Ready. She explains that although anyone can apply, it is scored, so those who are working with children often get the highest scores. “We’ve been able to really help people get into units of their own and then we follow them with case management resources, make sure they are paying the rent, helping them to be good tenants, and then at the end of the year they are hopefully going to move on and be independent,” she says.
Ready says that in Vermont, people understand that everyone needs a warm, safe space indoors. “More and more people are getting the idea that this is the kind of suffering we don’t want our neighbors to go through,” she says.