Last month we wrote about a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that points to a growing income inequality and its effect on childhood poverty, which in Vermont has increased 25 percent since 2007.
Another report, from ThinkProgress.org, points to yet another alarming trend which often goes hand-in-hand with poverty -- homelessness. Even as the United States as a whole makes steady progress in its fight against homelessness, those gains are not experienced everywhere.
ThinkProgress examined data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which compiles an annual count of homeless people across the nation. Researchers looked at changes in states' overall homeless populations between 2008 and 2013 to determine which states are winning the battle against homelessness and which are falling behind.
Roughly half the states -- including Vermont -- saw their homeless populations increase over the past five years, even as the national number has declined. Vermont, which saw its homeless population go up about 30 percent in that time period, was in the top five. The other states where homelessness increased the most were North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas and Montana.
Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island also saw their homeless populations go up while New Hampshire's went down more than 20 percent and Connecticut's fell about 10 percent. The five states that improved the most were Michigan, Kentucky, Colorado, Oregon and Nevada.
Another report issued just over a year ago backs up the alarming trend here in the Green Mountain State. The Vermont Council on Homelessness, in releasing a five-year plan to end homelessness in Vermont, noted that on any given day in 2012 there were some 2,800 people without shelter in Vermont. That's up from 2,200 in 2008.
"By any measure, too many of our fellow Vermonters are without housing today," Gov. Peter Shumlin said in announcing the five-year plan. "We know that homelessness can be encountered across all age and demographic groups, and that, like poverty, it can impact veterans, workers in low-wage jobs, persons struggling with substance abuse or mental health crises, victims of domestic violence, and almost any other vulnerable population one could name. The dislocation caused by homelessness seriously compounds other challenges that our friends, family members and neighbors encounter when trying to address those root causes."
The strategies outlined in the plan include increasing the number of affordable housing units for very low income people, especially the homeless; align and coordinate existing homelessness prevention, housing relocation and rapid rehousing activities; and expand programs and support services once households move into permanent housing.
Fortunately, progress is being made on these strategies. Take, for example, the Brattleboro Housing Authority's self-sufficiency program, which helps BHA hire coordinators who work with residents to find supportive services that can help them with job training, placement opportunities, as well as to secure transportation and employment interviewing skills and strategies, and ultimately alternative housing.
The BHA received a $69,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to continue the program for at least one more year, as part of a $16.3 million grant that will help hire more 300 program coordinators across the country.
BHA Executive Director Chris Hart said almost 100 residents have taken advantage of the program, and are working with a program coordinator to find and keep jobs.
"We've had huge success with this program," he said. "It is one of the best investments we can make to help people become more self sufficient."
While programs like these are a great step toward ending homelessness, it's obvious we can and need to do more. As Shumlin said, "We must continue to increase both the availability of housing and the delivery of services to those who are homeless."
But what can average citizens do help solve such a long-standing problem that has so many root causes that individual efforts seem almost pointless? For starters you can keep this important issue at the forefront of political and social discourse by attending the 16th Annual Homelessness Marathon, a national event coordinated locally by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness. The marathon will begin at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 19, at the First Baptist Church of Brattleboro, and run for six hours until 1 a.m.
Live video of the broadcast will be carried by Free Speech Television (FSTV) at 8 p.m.