Health Care

Homelessness continues to rise in Vermont since pandemic’s onset, despite increased spending

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A tent encampment is hidden in the woods of southern Vermont in November 2021. A new report finds that even though Vermont’s annual spending on homelessness prevention and support services has roughly tripled since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people experiencing homelessness is double that of pre-pandemic levels — and appears to still be rising. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Despite drastic increases in spending to curb homelessness since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of people living without permanent shelter continues to climb, according to a report issued Thursday by Vermont State Auditor Doug Hoffer.

Additionally, Hoffer found that it’s unclear whether Vermont has a coordinated vision for what “ending homelessness” should look like and how to achieve that goal, which the state set in the years prior to the pandemic. Former Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, announced a five-year plan to end homelessness in 2013 and issued an executive order with a four-year pledge in 2016.

Although the state has seen an infusion of funds into various services aimed at addressing the issue, the efforts are fractured, according to Hoffer’s report.

“Homelessness is a complicated public problem, and the pandemic has added to the intensity of it,” Hoffer wrote. “Nonetheless, without establishing measurable goals Vermont could easily continue on the current path without knowing whether the combined efforts described in this report have reduced the number of homeless Vermonters at any moment in time.”  

The research contributing to the report, directed by Deputy State Auditor Tim Ashe and investigated by Government Research Analyst Fran Hodgins, constitutes the first time anyone has worked to calculate the total financial effort the state has made to address homelessness, according to the report. 

Vermont spent more than $455 million on homelessness initiatives in the last six years, the researchers calculated, including a tripling of annual spending between fiscal years 2020 and 2021, in its Covid-impacted budget. Spending remained nearly as high in fiscal year 2022 as it was the year prior. 

Nevertheless, more people are known to be experiencing homelessness in Vermont now than during any other year since the state auditor’s report started tracking the numbers in 2014. 

Prior to the onset of Covid, Vermont’s point-in-time count, which tallies the number of people living outside on a single day each year, generally hovered between 1,000 and 1,500 people. 

In 2021 and 2022, the count roughly doubled from the previous range, to 2,591 and 2,780, respectively. 

In fiscal year 2017, the state spent $33.5 million on homelessness initiatives; 2018, $35.4 million; 2019, $36.2 million; 2020, $50.6 million; 2021, $153.4 million; and 2022, $146.6 million, according to the report. 

Fiscal year 2023 is expected to yield similarly high financial inputs, from various sources and in support of various services. 

By this time next year, the state will have spent more than half a billion dollars over the course of seven years to address the issue, according to the report. 

The post-Covid increase in spending is likely an underestimate, Hoffer wrote, as it excludes spending in the final months of fiscal year 2022 and excludes programs not specifically directed at homelessness but which still benefit those experiencing or at risk of it.  

The researchers also interviewed housing professionals, who widely believed the efforts to confront homelessness have yielded significant improvements, particularly a coordinated entry system with enhanced collaboration between service and housing providers. 

More than 1,800 households exited homelessness to permanent housing between April 2020 and May 2022, according to the Department for Children and Families. 

But the housing professionals expressed nearly universal concerns, too. 

“While Vermont responded quickly and systematically to protect homeless households during the pandemic, the solution has been expensive and relies on short-term federal funding and the willingness of motel and hotel owners to continue to make rooms available,” Hoffer wrote.

Providers’ other concerns revolved around the inadequacy of available mental health services for households experiencing homelessness, which many need in order to remain in transitional or permanent housing, according to the report. 

Providers and policymakers alike were also frustrated that the housing crisis appears to be worsening, despite investment in new housing units, according to the report. 

“In other words, while the newly constructed units are extremely valuable for those who reside in them, Vermont is not building its way out of the problem,” Hoffer wrote. “What will it take for Vermont to have the infrastructure in place, both services and housing, to ‘end homelessness’? Is there a target number of shelter beds? Of new permanent affordable units?” 

Hoffer wrote that the spike in homelessness could be driven, in part, by pressures on the housing market that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, with fewer units available and prices rising. Additionally, thousands of residences which once served as long-term homes have been converted to short-term rentals over the last five years, he said.

He cautioned that it’s challenging to accurately measure the impact of any one element of the state’s work towards preventing and responding to homelessness, as those efforts are numerous and fractured.

Among the report’s other findings: Publicly funded emergency shelters saw annual numbers of people begin to trend downward before the pandemic, though there was an increase in individual lengths of stay, or “bednights.”

Yet between 2017 and 2019, it found, emergency shelter spending increased by 36% while serving almost 500 fewer people for about the same number of bednights.

The pandemic required significant alterations to meet rising demands for non-congregate, socially distanced housing, which took the form of motel vouchers through Federal Emergency Management Agency funds. 

Before the pandemic, 200 to 300 households were living in motel rooms nightly in times of cold weather. By April of 2021, more than 2,000 households were enrolled in the program. This past April saw 1,571 households living in motels. 

Additional Covid-related funding helped support various services to meet rising needs of Vermonters in shelters and motels, including expansion of staff coverage, supplies, outreach, housing navigation support, mental health support services, meals and on-site security. 

The state has spent $190 million on emergency shelter and related services from fiscal year 2017 to the spring of 2022 — nearly 90% of which was spent during the pandemic, according to the report. 

The Auditor’s Office recommended that the executive and legislative branches, in collaboration with organizations that work with homeless households, establish a clear definition of “success” in order to track progress. 

The release of the report on Thursday coincided with a Summer Summit on Homelessness, sponsored by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness, to discuss the direction of Vermont’s collective response to the issue.

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Ella Ruehsen

About Ella

Ella is a student at the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in environmental studies and was recently elected editor in chief of the Vermont Cynic, the school’s independent student newspaper. She previously was a reporter and news editor at the Cynic and interned last summer at the Burlington Free Press.

Email: [email protected]

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