Brenda Siegel: Gov. Scott must house the houseless

This commentary is by Brenda Siegel of Newfane, a housing activist and a local Democratic Party leader who works with grassroots organizations.

For the better part of three weeks, I have been sleeping on the Statehouse steps with my colleague and lived experience expert Josh Lisenby. 

Why do I call him an expert? Because for six years, he has had to spend six months of every year, in between when shelters were open, living in a tent or on the street. Sometimes in the winter. He has applied for housing and been denied for not having landlord references. He has struggled to keep up with case workers when his paperwork gets soaked in a storm or there is no power. When it is too cold to leave the makeshift camp that he has, it can be days before he has access to the world again. 

He is one of the lucky ones, in that after he was exited from the General Assistance Motel program with a financial bribe, he found a shelter to stay at until housing is available and accessible. 

Most who were exited did not have that luxury. Most are on the street or in the woods today, likely freezing, and with no hope of finding housing in a housing market that does not exist. 

When they have a chance to hear the governor, what they hear is that the governor does not value their lives enough to keep them safe this winter, even when he is being handed the cash to do it. That is the message that Josh has heard for years. 

Even with the hundreds of millions of dollars that the state Legislature has and will dedicate to housing, this will not keep people safe in the near term. That means that we have to use the tools available to us in the immediate future. 

We must reduce the gate to being safe this winter and allow anyone who is houseless to access the federal reimbursement for the GA Motel Program, followed by state-allocated funds. Given supply chain and workforce issues, along with the cost of building supplies dramatically increasing in the past six months, we must plan for a transitional step that keeps folks safely and consistently housed until they can be moved to long-term housing. 

Our neighbors and community members have nowhere to go. We cannot stick to old and stigmatized ways of thinking. It is time to bring impacted folks to the table to initiate real creative solutions. 

I may have had empathy before, but I could not have understood how challenging this experience really is. On the third night, our belongings got drenched in the rain. We had support from people who came and took our belongings to their homes to get dried. People on the street, who the governor exited to the street, slept (or tried to) on wet blankets and pillows, with no hope for dry clothes or surface. 

The next night, the temperature dropped to 45 degrees. People brought us extra gear. People who were homeless, some of whom had no gear, were still soaking wet from the night before, and slept drenched and in 45-degree weather. 

Then the temperatures really began to drop, first to 43 degrees. We slept in multiple dry sleeping bags, and still were extremely cold. People who the governor exited to the street did not have the good fortune of that level of extra layers or being dry as it rained that night too. 

In our second week, the beginning of the bitter cold of late fall and winter had begun to set in. We now have slept through many 30-degree nights and a few others in the upper 30s, which at this point feels like good fortune. Josh’s lived experience having had to live outside through the winter has helped us to not get sick. 

However, on several of the nights, I had a really hard time getting warm. With three warm sleeping bags and several handwarmers thrown in the one that I had zipped around me, I have been eventually able to stop shivering. There are folks on the street who never have that privilege. They are alone, without gear, and not the right warm clothes.

What you may not know is that, once your gear is wet on the street, there is often no way to dry it. That is why we see abandoned gear all over. Folks lose their tent and sleeping bags with the first real rain or snow. It has rained the majority of the 18 nights and 19 days that we have been here. We can’t stop thinking about those without the gear, support and privilege that we have had. Yet, even with it, we are taking a risk by being here. 

In no time at all, it will be too cold to survive out here, at least without long-term, significant health issues. The average age of death of a woman experiencing homelessnes is 52.2 and a man is 56.27, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. 

Most deaths occur when conditions create cold stress of multiple intensities. Folks experiencing homelessness are 13 times more likely to die of hypothermia than an average person in cold weather climates. 

Josh has been experiencing homelessness for six years. He is 46 years old. In the governor’s last press conference, he said that the GA Motel program is “not what is good for this population.” I am wondering if the governor feels that Josh Lisenby deserves to die in 10 years or less for the crime of becoming homeless? Is that what is good for this population? 

He then went on to say that “permanent housing is what is best.” But to the governor I say, there is no permanent housing, and people who freeze to death or develop serious health problems never get to see the permanent housing that may or may not finally come online in three to five years. 

The governor’s plan does not even cover the 2,000-plus needed homes for this population alone, not to mention the extensive need for middle-income and low-income housing for those who are not yet unhoused. 

The governor used this moment to make a political plug to the Legislature for money, when he could have used it to keep his constituents safe. The Legislature wants to see people housed; it is him who is keeping folks unsafe and without shelter. Vermont has not done enough to build housing through the years. But also, shelters, warming shelters, they have never been the answer. 

The governor keeps touting that during the pandemic we were able to keep everyone safe from Covid and in stable and consistent housing. That is true. What is troubling is that we have the opportunity to do that now, and he is choosing not to. He has the tools to keep people safe and is willing to let them die, get sick and suffer immensely. Can he look in the eyes of folks who are at risk of freezing to death and still walk away? Because I cannot.

Any extension of the GA Motel program must include those who are on the street now and may be in the future. Houselessness should be the only condition that our neighbors need to meet to be safe. A single person freezing to death, when we had the tools to prevent it, is way too many. 

Together, let us ensure that we are the Vermont that we always say we are. Governor, I ask you to keep our community members safe and housed this winter. Until then, you can find me on the steps of the Statehouse. 

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