Testimony in support of emergency housing funding and Bridges to Housing proposal

“No one is un-deserving of housing.”

In February 2023, VLA attorney Rebecca Plummer gave testimony about housing in Vermont. Her testimony was in support of the full funding of emergency housing programs and the Bridges to Housing proposal.

To: Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale, Chair, and members of Senate Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs Committee and House Committee on General & Housing Committee
From: Rebecca Plummer, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc.
Re: Testimony at Public Hearing on Housing
Date: February 16, 2023

Good evening, my name is Rebecca Plummer.  I’m an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, and the director of our Medical-Legal Partnership Project.  At Vermont Legal Aid and our sister organization, Legal Services Vermont, we work with people who are being hit hardest by Vermont’s housing crisis – including people going through eviction and people experiencing homelessness.  I have worked most closely in recent years through a partnership with clinics providing medication assisted treatment to people with substance use disorder.  These are people who are trying to turn their lives around and need, more than ever, a stable place to live, but are often very precariously housed or experiencing homelessness.

During the pandemic, Vermont has received critical federal assistance to shelter people experiencing homelessness and avoid an even greater public health crisis, but as we all know, that money is drying up.  At the same time, the housing crisis has exploded.  There is simply no housing to be found.  Vermont led the way in keeping people experiencing homelessness safe during the pandemic.  We’ve done it reactively, but we’ve seen how important it is and how it helps all of us, and we have a chance to plan and do this better.  We cannot return to unsheltered homelessness.  We at Vermont Legal Aid believe that housing is a human right.

The Legislature is working, through the Budget Adjustment Act, on ways to address the impending cliff next month for people who are sheltered in motels.  We appreciate this work, and we urge the Legislature to protect as many people as possible through this fix and not let people fall through the cracks. 

We at Vermont Legal Aid strongly support the Bridges to Housing proposal for the future of emergency housing in Vermont, that was put forth by numerous housing and homelessness advocacy organizations.  That proposal includes creating alternatives to motel-based shelter; investing in affordable housing and in services to support people who need help to remain housed and live independently; fully funding and re-envisioning the GA emergency housing program; and increasing planning and coordination to end homelessness.  We believe that all of these are essential to bringing Vermont through this housing crisis.  We also strongly support a rent rescue program and other measures to prevent evictions that, in a housing market with no vacancies, are a direct vector of homelessness.

I want to focus for a moment on the proposal to fully fund and re-envision the GA emergency housing program.  This administration has repeatedly expressed a desire to end the GA program and has not put forth a plan for emergency housing beyond the federal funding we have now.  As we work with people who are experiencing homelessness and in danger of becoming homeless, we feel a shocking disconnect here.  Yes, investing in housing is essential and urgently needed.  But we cannot pretend that this will happen quickly or that it will end homelessness completely.  We will continue to have people who need emergency housing because of eviction, loss of a job, domestic violence, addiction, fire or flood or condemnation of a building, lead paint or mold or rodent infestation, lack of heat or water.  And we need a robust, humane emergency housing program for our neighbors who find themselves in these situations – a program that protects them when they need a safe place to stay and helps them to find new permanent housing as soon as possible. 

Thank you very much for your time and your work for Vermonters.

To: Senator Jane Kitchel, Chair, and members of Senate Appropriations Committee, and Representative Diane Lanpher, Chair, and members of House Appropriations Committee
From: Rebecca Plummer, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc.
Re: Testimony at Joint Hearing on Appropriations
Date: February 21, 2023

Good afternoon, my name is Rebecca Plummer.  I’m an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, and the director of our Medical-Legal Partnership Project.  I’m here to ask you to fully fund emergency housing.  One of our partnerships has been with clinics providing medication assisted treatment, like methadone and suboxone, to people with addiction.  Because of their addiction, these people have often lost family, friends, custody of their children, jobs, and their health.  They are trying desperately to stay in treatment and turn their lives around.  They need, more than ever, a stable place to live, but instead they are often precariously housed or unsheltered.

When a person in treatment has no safe, reliable place to stay, they also cannot stay connected with health care providers to attend to other serious health needs.  And living on the street itself creates and exacerbates health crises.

One of our clients last fall had a heart condition that caused her to pass out frequently.  She was living in a tent in a wooded public space and was concerned about her safety and her ability to call for help if her phone died and she had no way to recharge it.  Another client had significant fluid in her legs that made walking extremely painful, and walking made the condition itself worse.  But she was unsheltered and had to walk a lot - to the clinic for treatment, to the Economic Services office to apply for emergency housing, to Social Security to check on the status of her lost SSI check.  She was losing ground on hard-fought gains in her sobriety and her health.  Because of their homelessness, when these people finally receive medical care, it is long past prevention or even treatment.  It’s a life-threatening emergency.

Homelessness – through interruption of care and through its own damage to the human body and mind – has significant health harms, and the externalized costs of this are passed on to our Medicaid program.  Indeed, it likely costs the state a lot more to not adequately fund emergency housing than to fund it.

The reality is that it is not possible to add enough shelter capacity (physical space plus staffing) or permanent units for people to exit homelessness in a year.  The people we work with who are struggling to maintain treatment for addiction are the most likely to end up (or stay) unsheltered if we fail to adequately fund emergency housing, and they are generally not covered by current proposals for housing voucher programs or by the extension of GA this spring under the current Senate plan in the Budget Adjustment Act.

Vermont currently has a 1% vacancy rate – there is simply nowhere for people who are homeless or being evicted to go.  And even when there is a vacancy, it is not affordable.  According to VHFA, the average rent cost in Vermont has gone from $945 in 2017 to $1400 today – a 48% increase.  At the same time, wage data from the DOL indicates that wages have only risen 7.4% over the course of the pandemic, widening the gap even for those working full-time.

People with substance use disorder who are experiencing homelessness have been hit by two crises not of their own making – the opioid crisis and the housing crisis.  No one is un-deserving of housing.  We as a state must continue working to solve the housing crisis through a variety of approaches.  But in the meantime, I urge you to adequately fund emergency housing to protect our most vulnerable neighbors.

Thank you very much for your time and your work for Vermonters.