This commentary is by Paul Dragon, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity; Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone; Jenna O’Farrell, executive director of Northeast Kingdom Community Action; and with the support of Southeastern Vermont Community Action.
For those of us who have met children who are unhoused, witnessed their anxiety, curiosity, hope and laughter, we know that we must do more.
The good news is we can. With a relatively modest strategic investment, we can solve child homelessness in Vermont and make episodes of child homelessness rare and brief.
According to the Agency of Human Services, there are over 400 families experiencing homelessness statewide, including over 550 children. These children are living in hotels supported by the state’s Emergency Transitional Housing Program, in hotels funded by the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program, or in homeless shelters around the state. There are also, at times, families living in their cars or other places not meant for human habitation.
We can immediately invest in rental supports and family-centered services to solve child homelessness. This investment would coincide with recent efforts by Gov. Scott’s administration to boost affordable housing over the next several years. Our state partners and nonprofit peers made great efforts to shelter people during the pandemic, even as the number of unhoused people quickly grew.
The focus on ending child homelessness is especially pressing as pandemic relief funds end, with many people, including the approximately 270 families with children, needing to leave the state’s hotel transitional housing program at the end of March. The time to make this investment is now.
Solving all homelessness needs to be a priority and solving child homelessness must be seen as part of that effort, as well as something that can be accomplished in the short term.
Solving child homelessness is a preventive investment and part of the long-term solution to solving all homelessness. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, when compared to low-income families, children experiencing homelessness:
- Have higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems.
- Have increased risk of serious health problems.
- Are more likely to experience separations from their families.
- Are more likely to experience more school mobility, repeat a grade, be expelled or drop out of school, and have lower academic performance.
- Are more likely to experience homelessness as adults.
Solving child homelessness will help break the generational cycle of poverty, decrease the risk of future homelessness, save state and federal money in the long term, and help to build a stronger economic workforce and social future for Vermont.
We can solve child homelessness by creating and sustaining a rapid rehousing program with support services for families with children experiencing homelessness. This term, the Legislature can include $5.1 million in the Budget Adjustment Act for rental subsidies. We were recently notified that $3 million was allocated in the Budget Adjustment Act, which is a good and much appreciated start.
These subsidies would create temporary housing vouchers for people to pay 30 percent of their income toward housing. The vouchers would last up to 18 months while families increase stability and income, and move onto a permanent federal subsidy if needed.
The program would need an additional $3.4 million in 2024 to sustain the voucher program to reach approximately 400 families in total, and an additional $1.7 million each year after that to continue to house an estimated 70 families coming into homelessness each year.
In addition to rental subsidies, we can ensure coordinated services for families experiencing homelessness by allocating an additional $1.5 million per year for 15 Ending Child Homelessness Coordinators throughout the state. There are strong family homelessness initiatives and models, such as the Family Supportive Housing Program in the Agency of Human Services, that can be built upon as a vehicle for ending child homelessness with the possibility of leveraging federal Medicaid dollars.
The coordinators will work to organize and streamline services among existing providers and maximize the varied organizational resources. Most families are currently linked to other services. However, these services tend to be delivered in isolation and are rarely coordinated and sustained or have a focus on housing.
Families with children experiencing homelessness need greater service coordination as they transition into secure housing, and should be followed by landlord liaison, education, mediation and other prevention supports to ensure that they stay housed, especially during the first year.
We understand that everyone deserves a home. To that end, let us revisit Vermont’s Roadmap to End Homelessness, reconvene Vermont’s Council on Homelessness and the Child Poverty Council, and let us take that doable and critical first step for Vermont by getting all of our kids housed. Please join us in our effort to solve child homelessness in Vermont.