I recently attended a meeting in Montpelier that gained some local press attention. A group of team and agency members, local residents, and interested activists gathered to talk about the problem of lack of affordable housing in the Montpelier area, and the large and growing number of persons who are without housing, are marginally housed, or are in significant danger of losing their housing.
I left the meeting feeling more hopeful about addressing the housing problem than I think I ever have. Here was a group of people who had good and realistic ideas and who are willing to work with the programs that are in place and are working, and build new ones to fill the gaps, and willing to engage the problem from a variety of angles. And while most at the meeting write off the idea of Montpelier having its own emergency homeless shelter as unfeasible, they discussed many other ideas that signified their commitment to seeing solutions come to fruition in the long run, and having something in place to keep people from freezing to death by next winter. There was a lot of support for ideas like a day shelter with access to computers, telephones, laundry facilities, counseling, and resource connections possibly even with caseworkers or peer volunteers, and the need for long-term housing, whether in transitional housing, boarding housing, or ideally single-occupancy units at low cost, so that the emergency shelter could truly be used for emergencies.
No committee or team or round table or think tank is perfect, but some are more functional and less frustrating than others. This particular group of people came from a wide range of the Barre-Montpelier community, and represented social service agencies and organizations, program directors, city council members, housing task force members, at least one person who had actually lived without housing (a demographic almost always, tragically, missing from conversations about how to help homeless people– I dunno, you think we should *ask* them what they need?), and at least one representative of the faith community. Some, obviously, wanted more help for the existing programs (particularly those working in them), and others wanted to add new programs. Some wanted to concentrate efforts in Barre, where housing and public property space are less expensive and more available, while others were passionate that Montpelier needed its own separate methods of addressing homelessness and housing shortage. But all were committed to understanding and addressing homelessness as a complex issue involving employment, physical, emotional and psychological needs, mental health status, family status, addiction and coping strategies, and plain old real estate availability, while at the same time recognizing that the surface level problem is phenomenally simple: give people a place to take shelter already. My understanding leaving the meeting was that we agreed to get together again, and also to have a separate group gather just from those within Montpelier to talk about what that city in particular can do.
And, as always, members of Trinity UMC have been passionate about addressing this issue with compassion and with the input of those who are without housing or marginally housed. We’re not interested in any solution that doesn’t actually work for people who are homeless, that doesn’t help people who can be housed obtain and keep safe housing. We’re most certainly not interested in any solution that does not respect and value the persons who are in need of housing, because then justice seeking becomes patronizing and dehumanizing, and the whole point is lost. I’m proud of my church and my town, and hope that we can get enough political will and public activity to begin to find some true solutions and make some sweeping changes.
Here’s the sort of “list” of what’s needed from what I’ve gathered/discussed so far, in a sort of progressive order from band-aid to social justice. Please add or comment with your thoughts!
1. Emergency contingency plans. When the winter temperature drops to deadly levels, a process to open space simply so people don’t freeze to death.
2. Emergency overnight short term shelter for singles and families in a safe environment.
3. Communication and transportation to get people to the shelter/overflow site when they need it.
4. Day programs for people who utilize overnight shelters, for the purposes of having access to resources that might help them attain a more stable and sustainable situation.
5. Longer-term shelter (transitional/boarding housing) for those who are not yet in a sustainable enough place to afford their own housing, but need to stay some place longer than a couple of weeks.
6. Better communication, matching, and utilization of programs like home sharing, that help people be housed middle-term lengths of time.
7. Better communication, volunteerism, and paid staffing of programs (good luck in this economy!) that help people obtain access to assistance and navigate the bureaucracies surrounding housing, food access, utility assistance, recovery programs, and so on.
8. AFFORDABLE, SAFE, AVAILABLE HOUSING. We just don’t have it. Not for seniors. Not for middle-income families. Not for singles. Not for young professionals. So it’s no surprise that we don’t have it for people whose definition of affordable is very low indeed. But this is the problem, and the heart of the solution, and no one I know has enough access to the real estate market to be able to help me understand how we make it better.
9. A more just economy. Someday.