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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Considering A 'Holistic' Approach To Homelessness In Vermont

Lawmakers began their work in Montpelier this week by taking aim at the many problems facing homeless and impoverished Vermonters.

Three committees held a joint hearing on homelessness and heard from the state’s housing experts in both the public and private sectors.

But the committees heard a more emotional testimony as well ­– from Randolph resident Janeen Morse. After Morse’s mental illness forced her out of her job, she and her grandson became homeless.

“You know, you talk about shelters and motels,” Morse said, referring to the state’s policy of providing funding for Vermonters in crisis a short stay in motels and shelters. “And I’ve had some experience with that in the past, and children don’t belong in motels. They don’t belong playing in the parking lots, they don’t belong living in a place where they have to walk down the street to stand in front of somebody else’s house to catch the bus because they don’t want their friends to know.”

Morse said lawmakers should devote more funding and attention to prevention of homelessness.

Her testimony was in line with that of state officials and community leaders, who said the state needs to take a more “holistic” approach to the homeless problem.

Linda Ryan, co-chair of the Governor’s Council on Pathways out of Poverty, said the state must increase spending on rental subsidies. The state’s rental subsidy program resembles the federal Section 8 housing voucher program. Vermont lost hundreds of Section 8 vouchers as a result of federal budget sequestration, and Ryan said the state needs to help plug that gap.

Ryan said rental subsidies are one program of many the state needs in order to reduce homelessness in Vermont.

“We have to look at the whole picture,” she said.

Other programs advocates hope to expand include job training, mental health services, and other case management services to help homeless and impoverished Vermonters out of poverty.

As the state faces a shortage in funding for emergency shelter programs, Christopher Curtis, an attorney for Legal Aid, said lawmakers should do more than just find emergency funding.

“Then the question is: What else? What are the alternatives to this? Because nobody in the advocacy community thinks that a motel is a long-term solution to homelessness or to stable, affordable housing,” Curtis said.

Lawmakers will continue to work on this issue and will now consider their ability to help low income Vermonters even as they face a $70 million budget gap for next year.