Editorial: Can the Twin States make room at the inn?

Published: 12-23-2023 10:00 PM

The Christmas story as told in the New Testament is a profoundly spiritual one, of course, but it has also a compelling material aspect — “because there was no room for them in the inn,” Mary and Joseph are obliged to find shelter in what one hymn describes as “a lowly cattle shed.” There the newborn infant is “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and laid in a manger, in the humblest of circumstances.

The need for shelter as a central concern of human life should resonate this holiday season whether or not you celebrate Christmas. The federal government reported recently that homelessness in the United States surged in 2023 to its highest level since counting began in 2007: It rose by 12% from the prior year; the homeless population increased by 70,000 individuals to a total of 653,000. Abject misery amid astonishing wealth is the hallmark of our times.

Vermont has the unhappy distinction of having the second highest rate of homelessness per capita in the country for the second year in a row. The annual point-in-time count conducted last January recorded 3,295 homeless people in Vermont The only good news is that only 4% of them were without shelter — living on the streets or in a car or in an abandoned building, for example — compared with 40% nationally.

For its part, New Hampshire experienced one of the sharpest increases in homelessness in the nation, a 52% increase from 2022 to 2023 in the annual point-in-time count, from 1,605 to 2,441. Of the total, nearly 14%, or 338 individuals, were unsheltered. (It should be noted that these counts represent but a snapshot and almost certainly understate the extent of homelessness.)

The severity of the problem is reflected at the local level, for example, in the city of Lebanon’s decision to open a 15-bed seasonal emergency shelter next month at an operational cost of $210,000 and the Upper Valley Haven’s proposal to locate a low-barrier emergency shelter for up to 20 people in Hartford.

The spike in homelessness has been largely and correctly attributed to the dearth of affordable housing available nationally and in the Twin States. The housing vacancy rates in many parts of Vermont and New Hampshire are in the 0.5% range; a healthy affordability index is considered to be a 5% vacancy rate.

Not surprisingly, both state governments are focused on the need to build much more housing, much more quickly. “The only way to truly address Vermont’s housing crisis, at all levels of income, is to build more housing,” a spokesman for Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said earlier this month.

While acknowledging that more housing will greatly alleviate the homelessness problem in the long term, we don’t think it is the only answer. People become homeless for varied and complex reasons, and both states need a comprehensive, coordinated, centralized plan to address those issues while also building an adequate supply of decent and affordable housing.

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Among many other things, such a plan would support local initiatives such as those being undertaken in Lebanon and Hartford; coordinate state-level resources with the efforts of charities and faith-based groups; figure out how to reintroduce rental subsidies such as those that existed during the pandemic; sponsor and coordinate treatment for mental illness and addiction among the homeless; make sure that those with disabilities have access to the full range of services that allow them to live independently and remain housed; provide safe shelter for people fleeing abusive domestic situations; ensure that military veterans are accessing the support to which they are entitled.

The alternative is what we see in Vermont now. The administration continues to rely on a patchwork of emergency measures in an atmosphere of crisis. As of November, an estimated 800 families were still being housed in the state’s pandemic-era motel program, which will wrap up in April. The Agency of Human Services, in what it concedes is a costly and temporary measure, now proposes to fast-track the establishment by spring of new emergency shelters for families for whom there will no longer be room in the inn. That is a necessary and humane step, but not a long-term answer.