Working to make homelessness rare and brief

For many, the New Year brings the joy of family and friends, the warmth that comes from spending time together indoors, and hope for a fresh start with blessings and possibility. But for many of our neighbors in Northwest Vermont who are homeless or teetering on the brink of homelessness, the winter months signify a harsh reality: brutal temperatures, overcrowded shelters and the stress and confusion of navigating complex systems to reach the goal of stable, permanent housing.

United Way of Northwest Vermont believes housing is a basic need for everyone in our community. That’s why United Way is working with partners all across the community to prevent homelessness and improve the complicated systems that are designed to help but can sometimes keep people from getting what they need.

In addition to providing three-year funding to seven programs across Northwest Vermont that offer a range of services related to homelessness—emergency shelter, permanent housing and housing retention – United Way is also engaged in the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, a partnership of many organizations working together to fight homelessness. The Alliance brings together dozens of stakeholders, like landlords, housing authorities, hospitals, police and other social service agencies, to make better use of the funds and resources available to serve the homeless population in Chittenden County.

According to Margaret Bozik, Co-Chair of the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance and Director of Asset Management & Special Initiatives at Champlain Housing Trust, addressing homelessness has been a longstanding challenge. Prior to the 1980s, no homeless shelters existed here. And after several shelters opened, homelessness was still on the rise due in part to the economy and cuts to federal mental health programs. A group of community leaders knew change was needed, and in 2012, the Alliance was reconstituted to be more inclusive and collaborative.

In 2014, the Alliance took on a project that proved to be transformative -- the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which began as part of a nationwide effort to house 100,000 homeless Americans. As a principal partner in this effort, United Way recruited and coordinated 74 community volunteers to engage people who were homeless, collect data for each individual, and create a more streamlined process for getting people housed.

“Street outreach was not a new concept. Others had been doing it, but this was the first time there was a collective effort to produce a single community-wide master list,” said Bozik.

This effort - plus the creation of a new coordinated entry system and of new housing dedicated for people experiencing homelessness - paid off, and in a short amount of time, the number of people living without homes dropped significantly. From 2014 to 2018, the number of people living unsheltered dropped from 90 to 17, the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness dropped from 76 to 35, and the number of homeless families with children dropped from 73 to 33.

“The impact has been enormous,” said Bozik. “United Way was key to getting this off the ground.”

Though the Alliance has moved the needle, there is still work to be done. Challenges revolve around three areas: There is not enough housing, housing subsidies exist for some people but not for others, and keeping people housed can be difficult, as there are many reasons why someone’s housing can become unstable, such as financial issues, mental health challenges and substance abuse.

The Alliance is now focusing its efforts on two main priorities: Housing retention, and streamlining access to resources. Through a data-sharing agreement among members of the Alliance, and continuing to implement the HUD-mandated coordinated entry system using a paid staff coordinator, the Alliance is building an equitable and needs-based process for housing individuals and families.

“Our community has told us to use their generous support to continue working on meeting basic needs like housing,” said Jesse Bridges, CEO of United Way. “United Way believes we need to continue to work with our partners and those without homes to figure out how to increase access to housing which has significant impacts on our related efforts to reduce substance abuse, promote mental health, advance employment and support families.”

The next steps for the Alliance are to track and assess how well the system is working. They have plans to bring in a consultant to compile data on how quickly people are being housed and where improvements can be made so that the community can make further steps towards ending homelessness for good.

To learn more about the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, visit their website.

Alison DeFisher