Homeless facing wage shortfall: Most work, but high cost of shelter, child care challenging

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s easy to assume the typical homeless person is unemployed and therefore unable to afford a roof and four walls.
The reality in Addison County is far different.
Almost all the temporary inhabitants of the John Graham Emergency shelter in Vergennes are employed, but are simply not earning enough to land one of the few vacant apartments in our area, according to local advocates.
Having a job gives shelter residents a sense of pride and renewed optimism for eventually living an independent life. But in most cases, these jobs pay minimum wage, or only slightly above, noted Elizabeth Ready, executive director of John Graham Housing & Services (JGHS).
Around $400 a week, before taxes, is not enough to land an apartment in Addison County, where the vacancy rate is approximately 1 percent.
Rent for the average two-bedroom apartment in Addison County is $1,016 per month.
So a family would need to earn $40,000 annually to afford a two-bedroom apartment. But a minimum wage earner can only afford $475 per month and still hope to pay other household bills.
“Today, people living in our housing work at Shaw’s, Hannaford’s, the Gulf Station, local farms, community care homes, Junction Subaru, Dunkin Donuts, Porter Hospital, the Counseling Service of Addison County, Middlebury College, Three Squares Café and United Technologies, to name just a few,” Ready said. “Often, the hours offered are at night or on the weekend. Transportation and childcare are tough to come by. But even though minimum wage is rising, people still don’t take home enough to pay for the high cost of housing.
“People can do all the right things and still not quite make it,” she added.
Many shelter residents have a high school diploma or less, thus limiting their opportunities for professional advancement.
“They are competing with people who have access to better paying jobs,” Ready said.
So the shelter is finding itself increasingly housing folks that are working, but who can’t afford a place of their own. And there are limited subsidies to help folks get into affordable housing, Ready noted.
This is a major reason why JGHS has now become more than a place to get three hots and a cot until the weather gets warmer.
And that’s why JGHS has expanded its role to include many services aimed at making its homeless clients more self-sufficient. The organization works in cooperation with other Addison County social service groups to offer counseling, tenant skills, employment advice, and information on how to access other support services for which they might qualify.
“Our job is to bridge the gap, and sometimes it’s a big gap,” Ready said.
During the past year, JGHS provided shelter/housing and services to 254 people at its five multi-unit houses in Vergennes, Middlebury and Shoreham. Approximately one-third of the households served were fleeing violence. The JGHS served people from 15 countries, many of them refugees or people seeking asylum.
There continues to be a lengthy waiting list for homeless-related services, not only in Vergennes, but throughout the state.
On one particular day last week, the John Graham Shelter was at capacity, hosting seven families with children, along with 12 individuals.
“There are 60-70 people in our buildings every day,” Ready said.
JGHS this past year also delivered services to another 89 people needing help with housing applications, food shelf assistance and other resources, according to Ready.
While resources are stretched thin, Ready had some good news to share last week.
John Graham Housing & Services will administer eight new “Rapid Rehousing vouchers” that will benefit homeless families in Addison County. The two-year vouchers are funded through the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development and entitle the holder to rental assistance, case management and help finding work.
Addison County’s Local Housing Solutions group will approve applications for the vouchers. The panel has already OK’d three shelter households. Eligible clients of such organizations as WomenSafe, the Addison County Parent-Child Center and the Counseling Service of Addison County will also be considered.
John Graham Shelter officials will continue to follow past clients to make sure they don’t stumble along the way.
“Once people are out of their (subsidized) units, we don’t want them to be homeless again,” Ready said.
The annual “Sleepout” near the Otter Creek Falls is one of JGHS’s biggest fundraising efforts. This year’s edition will take place on Saturday, Dec. 2. It will begin with a candlelight vigil on the Middlebury green beginning at 4 p.m.
Participants can bring a bag of food, a box of diapers, toiletries, hygiene products, cleaning supplies, a new quilt or set of sheets for a family moving into a home.
The Sleepout will take place on the Marble Works side of the Otter Creek Falls, following a meal at St. Stephen’s Church. Participants will pitch tents or other makeshift shelters and spend one night experiencing what the homeless feel on a regular basis — cold, anxiety and uncertainty.
Each Sleepout member is seeking financial sponsors, with the money going to JGHS. For information on how to contribute and/or donate, log on to tinyurl.com/yajub2gf.
As of last Wednesday, Sleepout pledges stood at approximately $35,000. Ready was hoping for more support as time ticks away toward the big event.
Area advocates for the homeless said raising funds for local causes is becoming more challenging. One of the major reasons: other worthy causes on the national (Hurricanes Harvey and Irma) and global (Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico) stages are competing for limited philanthropic dollars.
“We really need local people to support local services and the United Way,” Ready said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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