Panel pitches poverty solutions, including hotel fee to raise funds

VERGENNES — Rachel can’t seem to catch a break.
With Thanksgiving approaching, Rachel (not her real name) is around a month into her second stint at the John W. Graham Emergency Homeless Shelter in Vergennes.
She had to leave her home following a domestic dispute. Her latest seasonal job has run out of steam, leaving her with no income. Rachel had previously worked for two small businesses that ultimately shut their doors. She has two grown children, but does not have the option of staying with either until she gets back on her feet. And she had come to a point where she couldn’t do any more “sofa surfing” at friends’ homes.
“My hope is to be on my own, with a full-time job, back in the workforce and self-supporting,” Rachel said one day last week, during a break from looking for jobs at area stores.
Rachel’s predicament is unfortunately all too common. With winter fast approaching, the shelter last Tuesday took in a family of six to reach its 18-person capacity, according to Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the facility that not only takes in people with no place to live, but provides transitional housing and helps clients pin down jobs and benefits on their road to independence. The organization is currently providing temporary accommodations to a combined total of 40 people at the shelter and four separate buildings in the Vergennes area.
“Right now, we couldn’t take any more people,” Ready said, noting all the full beds and the organization’s staff of three full-time positions.
Increasing the anxiety for Ready and fellow advocates for the homeless is the extent to which Vermont’s human services safety net could be affected by the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. Trump, during the presidential campaign, promised a shake-up in the way human services, including health care, would be provided under his watch.
The portend of a potential benefits shake-up at the federal level, Ready believes, should give even more weight to a series recommendations contained in the just-released report of the Governor’s Pathways from Poverty Council. Ready is a member of that statewide independent panel, established by Gov. Peter Shumlin to look at the causes and symptoms of poverty and propose actions to remedy those conditions.
The council has delivered an annual report to the governor since it was established in 2014. In its latest report, the council recommends such actions as:
•  A $2 occupancy fee on guests at motels and hotels, raising an estimated $11 million to $12 million annually to invest in more affordable housing. Specifically, that money would be used to boost what the council called the “three-legged stool of investments in housing and homelessness”: The Vermont Rental Subsidy Program that helps low-income residents pay for apartments, support services — like child care and health care — for those transitioning to independence, and capital investments in new affordable housing, and/or renovations to the existing stock.
“We need new revenues so we can redouble efforts to make sure every Vermonter has a place to call home,” the report states.
•  Repeal of the Reach Up benefit reduction for families with a member receiving disability benefits.
•  Expand weatherization and fuel assistance benefits for low-income Vermonters.
•  Fully fund school-based mental health services in all public schools.
“Many of our young students are not ready to learn when they enter school,” the report states. “Teachers cannot teach students who are not ready to learn.”
•  Increase assistance for job training and new business launches.
•  Boost the Vermont Agency of Human Services IT system to allow for more seamless services to low-income clients.
•  Support a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
•  Create and fund a comprehensive study on transportation issues for low-income Vermonters.
•  Support a state-administered family and medical leave insurance policy.
•  Offer free school meals to all public school students.
•  Increase the number of Federally Qualified Health Centers.
Ready said she and other council members will urge legislators to support individual recommendations in the report.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. She has reviewed the council’s report and took special note of the panel’s proposal of a $2 rooms tax. Ayer noted the council has made that recommendation in the past, but it has not come up for legislative debate. She said she’s willing to discuss the idea, but wants more information.
“Maybe it’s time to take it up,” she said of the concept of a rooms tax. But she also noted past, negative feedback from Addison County lodgers.
“Most of our lodgers thought Vermont would be placed at a tremendous (competitive) disadvantage if we did that,” she said.
Ready, herself a former state senator, said she realizes the state’s tough financial situation.
“The governor-elect (Phil Scott) and the incoming Legislature will have some very big decisions to make to just preserve the safety net we have now,” Ready said. But additional investments are warranted, she believes, given potential benefit reductions at the federal level and considering the changing profile of the homeless population in Vermont.
Some of the shelters’ clients continue to be single people, some with mental health challenges and other disabilities, officials said. But Ready has been seeing more homeless families, featuring one or two adults who are in the workforce. So some families cannot afford housing even with one or two incomes, according to Ready. They have been resorting to camping, or sleeping in cars and storage units, she noted.
A minimum wage income will not support a family in a county in which monthly apartment rents are hovering around $900 to $1,000, according to Ready.
“When more and more people are working and still not making it, it’s a cause for alarm,” said Ready, who spoke of a current shelter client who is a single parent making $15 per hour but can’t fit a market-rate apartment rent in her household budget.
“People are thinking, ‘I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing’” by working, yet still can’t afford an apartment, Ready said. “We are trying to bridge that gap between what jobs pay and the (cost of) housing.”
‘SENSE OF URGENCY’
This John Graham Shelter this calendar year has a budget of $450,000. About 22 percent of those funds are raised locally through area towns, the United Way of Addison County, individual donations and fundraising. About 59 percent of the shelter’s funding comes through state and federal government, and another 18 percent comes from grants and foundations.
“We would like to increase our local support to 30 percent to 33 percent, in part to provide the services people need to be successful in looking for housing and work, and to help them retain permanent housing once they move in,” Ready said. “The budget future looks uncertain, and when times are tough it can fall hardest on those on the margins. So we do feel a sense of urgency.”
The shelter will hold its biggest annual fundraiser, the Sleep-out to End Homelessness, on Dec. 3 near the Otter Creek Falls in Middlebury. The event will kick off with a candlelight vigil at 4 p.m. on the Middlebury Green, with a bread and soup supper to follow at St. Stephen’s Church. Participants — who will gather pledge donations for programs helping the homeless — will then pitch their tents on the banks of the Otter Creek to spend the night outside. More information about the event can be found at classy.org/sleepoutbyfalls. People interested in sleeping out can also reach Ready at 802-989-2581.
“The idea is to come together and help the community,” Ready said.
John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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