State News

Homelessness and Covid-19

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

Public health is improved with safe housing

The Covid-19 crisis is challenging all of us, but it is particularly challenging for those already at risk in Vermont. “Stay Home, Stay Safe” assumes two things – that you have a home and that it is safe. Sadly, for too many Vermonters this is not the case. And so Vermont’s government, along with its non-profit housing community, has stepped in to provide additional help.

Covid-19 has magnified the need for safe, affordable housing, and Vermont doesn’t have enough of it. In Windsor County we have very low vacancy rates and very expensive rents. Low-income Vermonters are often more vulnerable – not only to the health consequences of this pandemic but to its economic fallout. They have higher levels of underlying health conditions and far less financial security.

At the moment, Vermont has about 1,600 homeless families and individuals being housed in motels and hotels around the state. In the Upper Valley we have about 120 homeless households, which translates to about 195 individuals (14 of whom are children) being sheltered in five different motels in 125 rooms. To put this in perspective – in a normal winter, the Upper Valley Haven might be sheltering anywhere from 60-70 people. In mid-March, the state extended the motel voucher program in response to the Covid-19 crisis. As a result, the Haven was able to meet the demand for housing not just of those who were homeless, sheltered and unsheltered, but also those who were housing insecure (i.e. people who were couch surfing, sleeping in cars or doubling up). The Haven has been the conduit for coordinating this safe housing, helping distribute food, and helping secure the support services many of these people need to stabilize their lives.

This pandemic has brought into sharp relief the fact that housing is health care. One of the success stories of this Covid-19 crisis is the fact that by acting swiftly, the affordable-housing community (the state with a host of housing and social service non-profits) managed to move the homeless population from congregant housing to motel rooms where they could live safely, maintaining physical distance. As a result, to date, not a single homeless person in Vermont has had the coronavirus. This is good news for all of us.  And, as a further benefit, a number of those Vermonters who were precariously housed have been helped into permanent housing.

In Boston, one-third of its homeless population has been sick with Covid-19, both a tragedy for those falling ill and an infection hot spot putting everyone at greater risk.

We have an opportunity now to act further on what we know – that public health is improved with safe housing. The opportunity to leverage some of the federal Covid-19 financing into permanent housing for Vermonters is a real option. We can expand rental assistance to prevent new people from becoming homeless as the crisis strikes more and more of us. We can house families who have lost their homes in temporary housing or motels. More permanently, we can incentivize rehabilitation of unused houses and the building of new affordable housing. We could buy some of these motels, facing their own financial challenges, and renovate them to house families.

The affordable-housing community has created a proposal to invest $106.5 million of the federal Covid-19 money into this work – creating a bridge from homelessness to permanent housing. They propose to spend $70 million to create new housing, and $36.5 million for the next 9 months to help prevent future outbreaks of Covid-19 by ensuring safe and healthy homes for more Vermonters. It anticipates expanding support services to meet the increased needs of these vulnerable populations and builds capacity in the housing community to provide these services. The local jobs created by this housing investment could also play a significant role in Vermont’s economic recovery.

Clarkson can be reached at aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone at 457-4627.

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