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Homelessness on the rise among Vt. families

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BY KATHRYN FLAGG

VERGENNES — That 10-month-old Haley has never had a home to call her own is a burden her mother, Crystal Kendall, carries with her everyday.

“I just hate putting her through it,” said Kendall, 27, as Haley — sleepy-eyed and happy after a long afternoon nap — squirmed in her lap. “People say that she’s too young to know where she is — but I kind of want to think she does. One minute you’re camping in a tent, the next minute you’re at somebody’s house, now she’s here.”

“Here” is the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes, where Kendall, Haley and Haley’s father, Jack Walters, 22, all temporarily live.

The family has been homeless since before Haley was born, staying in the shelter for the first time last October. They moved back in earlier this month after friends they had been staying with kicked them out of their house.

And while Kendall and Walters considered themselves lucky to find beds in the crowded shelter, it’s no substitute for a place of their own.

“This is a place to stay but nothing you could really call home,” said Kendall.

According to a report published last month by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA), families like Kendall’s make up a growing portion of Vermont’s homeless population. The number of homeless families in Vermont increased by 20 percent over the last seven years, from 429 families in 2000 to 516 families in 2007.

For Vermont — which last year had the highest per capita rate of homelessness in New England — family homelessness poses unique problems for state government and for the families struggling to find housing.

The trouble, according to shelter director Elizabeth Ready, is that many Vermont families are teetering increasingly close to the edge of homelessness — and a single event can sometimes be enough to tip the scales against them.

“It could be something as simple as somebody loses a job, an illness, even something like a major car repair,” said Ready.

Plus, she said, many of the families she meets through her work at the shelter have poor credit histories — making recovery from such events even more difficult.

“It’s so hard for them to get a second chance,” she said, “and then they end up homeless.”

That was the case for Kendall. She’s been denied for income-based housing because of bad credit. She’s already on every statewide housing authority list available, she said, but lack of funding means only one such authority is still operating.

“It all happened when I was 18 years old,” said Kendall. “I had not a care in the world. I wanted to keep the money, not pay my bills. Now, I’m older. I have a baby. I need to think about her. And it’s impossible to get housing because it’s so expensive.”

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Diana Rule has worked as the manager at the shelter for 10 years. Before that, she was a tenant advocate for the Addison County Community Action Group, now known as HOPE. She’s helped Addison County families search out affordable housing for years, and, like Ready, she’s noticed the increase in families without a place to call home.

“I’m definitely seeing more people struggling with deeper issues — more families with children, more working poor, just more people struggling,” said Rule.

What Rule has noticed is consistent with a statewide trend. At the Vergennes shelter, families stay an average of two and a half to three months. The longest consecutive stay for a family, according to Rule, was 174 days — almost six months.

And though demand for the shelter’s 17 beds tapers off slightly in the summertime, when many of Vermont’s homeless camp outdoors, the shelter is still overwhelmed by the number of homeless looking for a bed each night.

“We’re never able to meet the need,” said Rule.

They’ve housed as many as 25 individuals in one night — and in one day last week, Ready said, the shelter was forced to turn away four families.

The burden is shared by Vermont’s other 21 state-funded shelters. According to the VHFA report, from 2000 to 2007 the number of Vermonters who were able to find room in one of the state’s emergency shelters declined — just as the number of homeless families served by the shelters increased.

An annual “Point-in-Time” homeless census conducted during one day in January found that 2,249 Vermonters had no place of their own to stay that night. Nearly half of the homeless counted that night were in families, and 503 were children under the age of 18.

Homeless families in Vermont are faced with daunting challenges — including a lack of affordable housing. And while some affordable housing units are on the market — the John Graham shelter, in fact, recently received a grant subsidy to renovate a downtown building into three affordable housing units — the demand outpaces supply.

“Now with the increase in the cost of food and fuel, wages aren’t keeping up,” said Ready. “I think that we’re going to see a lot of real suffering.”

GETTING BY

Many families who come into the Vergennes shelter tell Rule that they’re not a “typical homeless person,” she said.

The catch, according to Rule, is that there is no typical homeless person.

Part of the joy of her job, she said, is meeting families at the point that they’re at, and helping them make whatever improvements they can in their lives. The challenge can be daunting, but the shelter focuses on building individualized plans for each of its residents, and laying out steps to help them achieve their goals.

Walters, who was out of work for four months because of a broken arm, hopes he’ll be able to find a job cleaning office buildings in the near future. He and Kendall plan to save up their state-funded Reach Up cash assistance during their stay at the shelter.

“As far as raising her — we make ends meet,” said Kendall, bouncing Haley on her knee. She wants her daughter to have a room of her own someday, she said, though in the short term, she’d settle for a roof of their own. Skeptical about housing authority lists, Kendall is searching for efficiencies the family can afford.

Until that happens, her family could suffer from some of the major consequences associated with homelessness. Higher levels of stress and trauma are common among homeless children, and parents and children both are more likely to experience physical or mental health problems than families with stable homes.

“She comes before anything,” said Kendall, looking at her daughter. “Finding her a place to live comes first.”

But Kendall, who has been disappointed when housing fell through in the past, is reluctant to get her hopes up again.

“I don’t see (an end in sight),” she said. “I just kind of think negative and hope for the positive.”

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