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Making a life in Addison County: Lack of jobs, housing strains young adults

Editor’s note: Over the course of the summer, the Independent’s ongoing series “Making a Life in Addison County” has documented the lives of some of the 7,000 young adults in our community. We’ve looked at how people ages 18–35 view this community, why they choose to settle down here, and whether they choose to raise families here.
In telling the story of this age group, it is also important to tell the story of those who aren’t so fortunate — of the many young adults living in poverty in our community. A 2009 survey found that 37 percent of homeless people in Vermont were between the ages of 20 and 35. In Addison County and throughout the state, a lack of affordable housing has combined with a lack of jobs to put a particular strain on young adults.
All of this series’ print articles and its five accompanying multimedia profiles are available here.
ADDISON COUNTY — When Dee Lamoureux, a services manager at a local charity, was asked to identify recent trends affecting young adults on the cusp of poverty in Addison County, she responded without hesitating.
“There’s no jobs,” she said. “There’s no new jobs coming in where the old ones have gone out.”
Meanwhile Laura Morse, a housing advocate with a different organization, identified the county’s and state’s lack of affordable housing as the biggest problem facing poor young adults.
“Housing is the biggest crisis in the community,” she said.
Morse and Lamoureux have different perspectives: Lamoureux oversees a variety of programs at the Middlebury nonprofit Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) and often works on job counseling, while Morse works with tenants, the homeless and landlords on housing issues for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO).
Whether joblessness or a lack of affordable housing is a greater concern, they and other aid workers in the community agree that these two issues feed into a cycle of problems affecting the less fortunate young adults in the community.
“I think it’s all so blended,” said Donna Rose, food shelf coordinator at CVOEO. “How do you find a job if you don’t have a home?”
Many studies offer numbers to demonstrate the extent to which the lack of affordable housing is a real concern in both the county and the state.
This summer, the Vermont Housing Finance Agency found Addison County has an affordability index of 77 percent, meaning that a household earning the county’s median annual income — $66,000 for a family of four — can afford to pay just 77 percent of the value of a median Addison County home — $211,000. The statewide affordability index is 79 percent.
“One of the things that poverty will affect severely in that age range (20- to 35-year-olds) is housing. There’s not enough affordable housing in the state of Vermont right now,” Lamoureux said. “The federal government says that housing should be no more than 30 percent of your gross income. I don’t know a lot of places (in the area) where that really works.”
Despite this cycle of problems, both aid workers and young adults who use the county’s various services stressed that there is an extensive support network in the area.
“Vermont’s probably one of the most helpful states,” said Leah Campbell, a 33-year-old Middlebury resident who has sought aid from HOPE for more than 10 years. “If you know what’s available to you, you’ll never starve in Vermont because there’s so many organizations that will help. And that’s wonderful.”
A VARIETY OF CONCERNS
Like other organizations in the area, HOPE offers a wide range of programs to the needy. HOPE has an emergency food shelf, offers counseling on money management and public benefits, and provides financial assistance for prescription medicine, among other things.
In a three-month period from April to June of this year, HOPE served 250 adults between the ages of 20 and 35 years old.
These young adults used a variety of HOPE’s services, but Lamoureux said that the organization’s aid in obtaining prescription drugs was especially important for needy young adults, who often do not have health insurance.
Affordable childcare is another significant concern for young parents, according to Lamoureux.
“If you’re trying to pay for daycare for two kids and you’re working a minimum wage job, your whole paycheck is going to daycare, so you might as well just stay home with the kids,” she said.
Campbell, who has three children, the oldest of whom is 13, said that in her experience housing vouchers through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development have been “a lifesaver.”
But she knows of people who’ve recently had trouble obtaining these benefits. And nonprofits throughout the county have seen significant delays in the benefits system as the economy continues to stumble and the state modernizes its application processing system (the Independent reported on this issue in a July 29 article).
“I respect what they’re trying to do with modernization. They’re trying to make it simpler and more streamlined,” Campbell said. “But there’s been a lot of glitches and I feel really bad for the people who don’t advocate for themselves.”
ASKING FOR HELP
Campbell grew up in New Jersey, where she was classically trained as a vocalist. She lived in New York City briefly after high school to pursue a musical career, but soon moved to Vermont to live with her mother.
She’s worked jobs at McDonald’s, American Flatbread and Maplefields at different points, but much of the time she’s been on food stamps.
“My advice would be to get educated about what’s available, advocate for yourself and try not to look at (your situation) as permanent,” she said.
“My future’s kind of open right now,” Campbell added. “What I would like to do is figure out a way to get off the system in general. I’m definitely going to stay in Vermont for a few more years, at least until my kids are out of school. My youngest is eight.”
Lamoureux agrees that asking for help is incredibly important, and added that this can be very difficult for some people to do.
“Along with living in poverty comes the stigma which goes along with being in poverty. And that can be a huge thing for anybody to overcome,” Lamoureux said. “You may not be (in poverty) forever but while you’re there, there’s programs to help you eat, which everyone needs to do.”
CVOEO’s Rose also encouraged people to not view their situations as permanent. If people are placed in affordable housing, things can dramatically improve.
“All of a sudden life changes,” she said. “Because once you have that base, you know, then you can get the kids to daycare, and then you can get a job, and they can actually make food (in their own kitchens). Things change once you’re housed.”
Reporter George Altshuler is at georgea@addisonindependent.com.

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