They’re Talking About Homelessness Again

Blog#188- 1/26/24

By Richard Davis

It goes in cycles. The public conscience gets activated and politicians and policymakers talk about the crisis of homelessness and about how something needs to be done about it. There is a lot of talk, a few stories by major media outlets for a few weeks or months, and then not much changes.

To be fair, there are a number of programs around the country that create housing for homeless people and they do make life better for people as long as there is solid case management support and motivation for people to improve their lives. Brattleboro, Vermont has a number of organizations serving the homeless and, despite growing in capacity and comprehensiveness over the years, they are faced with a Sisyphean task.

Sadly, Vermont has the second highest rate of homelessness in the country. We have a severe shortage of affordable housing, prices for homes that are too high and high property taxes that make it difficult for too many people to stay in their homes as they age and try to live on fixed incomes.

That means that too many people are on the verge of homelessness and too many people are relying on social service benefits to keep them alive.

I hear stories every day when I provide fuel to people through the Windham County Heat Fund. Many of the people who come to us have had to put heating fuel on the bottom of the list of their priorities because paying rent and eating are more vital. There are more people living on this precipice than most people are aware of.

Here is some interesting information from the Vermont Progressive Party web site that provides some perspective. “Our current housing vacancy rate is 3.5% for rental units and just 0.7% for owner occupied homes. This is far below the national standard of 5% for a healthy vacancy rate. This tight market has dramatically increased housing costs. The median cost of a home has risen from $215,000 in 2018 to $315,000 in 2023 – $100,000 in just 5 years. These trends are putting the dream of home ownership – or a decent rental – out of reach for far too many Vermonters. With the shortage of workers available to fill critical occupations throughout the state, more migrant workers are relocating to the state to accept those positions, especially in the construction sector. This contributes to our housing emergency when migrant workers struggle to find housing due to immigration status and the gap between low wages and rent.”

We can build affordable housing but that will never eliminate high rates of homelessness in this country. Housing is critical, but the root cause of poverty and homelessness is the perverse economy that we have in this country. We may say we are a caring society but that is difficult to believe when Darwinian principles rule in health care, housing and just about every other sector of society.

The gap between the rich and the poor has been widening for decades and it is only getting worse. Whenever I pass through wealthy communities I start to realize just how many obscenely wealthy people there are. Go to Marblehead harbor in Massachusetts in the summer or any other place where boats are docked. The number of million dollar plus yachts is mindboggling. I have heard stories (unverified) that the turnover in expensive boats is quick and a lot of people who own them never leave the harbor because they use them mostly for cocktail parties.

Imagine what would happen if a big chunk of boat owners decided to use their yacht money to bolster social programs. They are usually people with power and money and they are the people who run our country. In a more egalitarian world those boat people would use their influence to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Instead, they are supporting measures that increase their wealth. Until they are ready to give up a serious chunk of their wealth by influencing legislation that will close the rich-poor gap we will never slow the rate of homelessness in this country.

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