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The Unique Challenges Facing Vermont's Homeless Population

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Challenges to accessing affordable transportation, child care and housing are all magnified in a rural place like Vermont - something that exacerbates homelessness here.

This year's long winter was especially tough for those who don't have somewhere warm to call their own. Vermont's mix of cities, towns and rural areas posed unique problems for the homeless here, and for the people trying to help them. 

Paul Dragon, director of Vermont's Office of Economic Opportunity, gave VPR a demographic snapshot of the state's homeless population, the particular challenges in a rural state and what's being done at the state level right now to fight the problem.

On the numbers

"There were 1,556 people in Vermont who were unsheltered, in emergency shelter or in transitional housing on the night of Jan. 28, 2014 ... We know that about 24 percent, or 371 were children, and we also know that many of them have disabilities and many are victims of domestic violence as well."

On uniquely rural challenges

"Transportation, access to good, quality, affordable child care, access to employment and then of course housing that is suitable to people, and housing that is available and affordable as well — all those things are magnified when you have people living in rural areas, and you don't have that kind of transportation hub, and you don't have the employment opportunities."

"Transportation, access to good, quality, affordable child care, access to employment and ... housing - all those things are magnified when you have people living in rural areas." - Paul Dragon, director of Vermont's Office of Economic Opportunity

On what's being done

"We've got an incredible network of services working to put people into permanent housing, transitional housing and, of course, our emergency shelter system. And we've got service providers who are doing a range of work from service coordination and case management to mental health counseling and substance abuse work. We have a great program called Family Supportive Housing where we take families who are experiencing homelessness, put them in permanent housing and then provide really intensive support services, and that includes some financial empowerment services. We're actually helping people create savings accounts and teaching them how to manage their money."

On the Housing First approach 

"It's hard to work on many of the other issues, particularly finding employment or getting someone's diabetes or hypertension under check, or getting them to counseling for substance or mental health, if they don't have a home ... So that is a big component of Housing First. Let's get people stabilized, get them in a home, and then we can work on these other issues."

"It's hard to work on many of the other issues, particularly finding employment or getting someone's diabetes or hypertension under check, or getting them to counseling for substance or mental health, if they don't have a home."

On stigma versus systemic problems

"I don't necessarily want to suggest that people who are experiencing homelessness have all these mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence issues, although those things are there. But again, it's a function of the economy. There are low wages, people are living in poverty, housing is extremely expensive and the cost of living is extremely expensive. So those are the systemic issues that we have to go after as well, not just thinking in terms of the systems."

On the effort to move people out of "homeless hotels"

"You know as I, we're working hard and trying to get people out of the hotels for a couple of different reasons. Hotels are a more expensive option, and we also don't think they're the best service option either. You know, it's beyond just keeping [people] warm. It's also trying to get them into permanent housing, get them stable so we can really work on the other issues that keep them from being housed in the first place."

This interview is part of a two-part series on homelessness in Vermont. Find more about a Vergennes shelter making strides in helping the homeless here.

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