When last we met, I castigated Gov. Phil Scott for his needlessly cruel posture on the emergency housing program, which he insists on shutting down next Friday when it won’t save the state a damn dime.
This time I’d like to widen the frame, and point out that there ain’t nobody making a public stink about this craven retreat from basic humanity. Well, that’s not entirely true; some people, including tireless advocate and two-time statewide candidate Brenda Siegel, have been banging the drum. Otherwise…
Media? An occasional story on VTDigger, and that’s about it. No questions on the subject at Scott’s Tuesday presser.
Legislative leadership? I haven’t heard a peep*. Maybe that’s because they agreed to the original plan to kill the program last spring, so they feel an uneasy sense of complicity. Or maybe it’s because the unhoused aren’t a core constituency.
Update: Two legislative commitees are holding hearings on the program next week. House General Etc. is on Monday morning at 9:00, Statehouse Room 11 or streamed online. The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules will meet next Thursday at 10:00 in Statehouse Room 24 and streamed online. Hopefully these hearings will prompt some kind of action, and produce some media attention to the issue.
Vermont Democratic Party? Not as far as I can tell. Nothing on its website. The VDP has issued a measly three press releases (according to my inbox) in the last month-plus, and emergency housing was not mentioned at all.
Vermont Progressive Party? You’d think so, but (again, as far as I can tell and I’m open to correction*) no. No press releases, no public statements.
*Correction: I’ve learned that the Progressive Party issued a press release in favor of continuing the emergency housing program in July, when it was first scheduled to end. Since then, Prog lawmakers have continued to speak out in support of the program.
Why the silence? Because we treat the unhoused as if they’re a separate and inferior species, living among us but not really of us. They are The Ignorables.
They are, to borrow a seemingly empathetic phrase from Emma Lazarus, the “huddled masses yearning” not to breathe free, but simply to have a roof over their heads. Her poem is supposed to represent the best of the American spirit, but underneath the nobility is the assumption that these people are nothing more than “wretched refuse.”
That remains the basis of our attitudes toward immigration and refugee resettlement as well as homelessness, that those people are different, inferior, and threatening. But even our own domestically-produced “wretched refuse” are seen as outsiders. And as somehow complicit in their own extremity.
We shouldn’t be asking “How can we phase out the emergency housing program without an unacceptable quantity of human suffering?” The real question ought to be “How do we make sure every person has access to decent housing?”
The unhoused aren’t some tiny group of imperfect or unlucky people doomed to a marginal existence. According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a little over 1,000 Vermonters experience homelessness on any given day. Of that number, only 185 are chronically homeless. (2019 figures.)
Those numbers were virtually identical in the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness’ annual Point-in-Time count for 2020 (available here). It reported 1,110 unhoused Vermonters, of whom 184 were chronically homeless and 425 were experiencing homelessness for the first time. There were more households with children than without.
Vermont’s unhoused aren’t some nameless, faceless crowd of the inevitably downtrodden. They are you and me. They do not deserve to be sitting in their emergency housing today, wondering where the hell they’ll be this time next week.
It’ll be a moral calamity if this program is allowed to expire. It’s already an embarrassment to anyone who claims to care, that we are once again engaging in needless brinksmanship with the lives of hundreds of us.
And, lest we forget, it’s an embarrassment that hundreds more were kicked out of the program earlier this year. Where are they now?
Where is the concern? Where is the outrage? Where are those who claim to be working toward a society that’s productive but also fair and compassionate?
[taps mic] Hello? Testing 1, 2, 3…