The Acceptable Cruelty Calculation

From the rumor front, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news: State Senate budget writers appear to be pondering additional funds for housing the homeless.

The bad news: They may be trying to do it on the cheap.

This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee is hammering out its version of a spending plan for fiscal year 2024. One big pending decision is how to deal with the looming end of the emergency housing program that serves 80% of Vermont’s unhoused through motel vouchers. If the program ends as scheduled in May and June, some 1,800 households could be unsheltered.

The House, after much dithering, added $20 million to its budget for related spending. Half would go toward purchasing vacant mobile homes, and the other half would boost support services for the unhoused. But the voucher program would end on schedule, and how the wise heads of the House failed to see the potentially catastrophic effects of this, politically, financially and morally, I have no idea.

On to Round 2 in the Senate, where two policy committees allowed token testimony from housing advocates. The latter presented a clear plan for extending emergency shelter while implementing a proven strategy to permanently expand available housing options and make a serious dent in the homelessness crisis.

Things looked bleak, but there are hints that the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee is looking to fund some version of said strategy.

Great, yes? Well, glass half full, glass half empty.

Last week, Anne Sosin of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition put forward a plan (downloadable here) to rapidly expand shelter and low-income housing capacity by acquiring hotels and motels for conversion to housing, boosting shelter capacity, easing the path to build pods and other kinds of manufactured housing, while also investing in permanent affordable housing.

The price tag: $122 million. Of that total, $72 million would fund an extension of the voucher program as a “bridge’ to better solutions. $40 million would be a one-time investment in the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board for acquiring and preparing properties, and $10 million would pay for shelter operations and support services.

Right now, advocates are feeling cautiously optimistic about the second and third items, and less positive about the voucher extension. If Senate Appropriations makes a serious investment in numbers two and three, that’s a lot better than the House’s plan. But if Approps decides against a voucher extension, we still face the imminent reality of a massive spike in the unsheltered. Which means we still face that imminent political, moral, and financial calamity, despite the good work on longer-term fixes.

If you want to explore the human dimension of this issue, I recommend former gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel’s Twitter feed. She’s interviewed hundreds of people currently housed in motels and hotels and posted their inspirational and cautionary stories online. Reading them, you realize that for all its flaws, the voucher program has brought a measure of stability and certainty to its clients. Its premature end would throw their lives into chaos. People will quite literally die if this happens.

That’s what our senators need to realize, deep down in their souls. The question isn’t “How much cruelty can we afford to prevent?” It’s “How do we avoid being cruel at all?”

The price tag isn’t that steep. Not compared to the human suffering that’s about to happen. And, if morality is too squishy for your taste, then make a decision based on the fact that a premature end to the voucher program will cost more — in dollars as well as life and death — than keeping it together while we enact permanent solutions.

C’mon, senators. Don’t settle for half measures. Go all in on keeping roofs over Vermonters’ heads and getting them into permanent housing as quickly as possible. It can be done. It has been done elsewhere. We can do it, too.


5 thoughts on “The Acceptable Cruelty Calculation

  1. zim

    Until the core problem is addressed – that the top 10% own near everything in the country – Keep in mind that they also control 99% of the institutional, cultural and economic resources of society and they have ZERO interest in seeing that change. of all these ‘plans’ the only ones that will pass are ones that are wealth transfers in disguise – building $300+ sqft crapbox affordable housing is outright theft of public money. Building cookie cutter housing along the ‘ideals’ of middle-class white aesthetics will only reinforce the ossified banality and moral corruption of Vermont. What is needed is a more directly accessible (affordable) built environment for housing to happen – not handouts to conventional developers who have wrecked the landscape everywhere in N. America.

    We live in a capitalist democracy John – which means that the state’s main purpose to manufacture scarcity and facilitate the transfer and concentration of wealth upward – this is the historical norm. It simply does not care two sh*ts about anyone who isn’t affluent and white.

  2. gunslingeress

    “Acceptable Cruelty” is the perfect definition of abortion — and the later in gestation the more cruel it is. But you had no problem supporting Article 22/Proposition 5, did you? Yes, we should try to end human suffering. But many liberals only want to end it in areas that will not be considered politically incorrect. Advocating for the homeless is one such safe area of political discussion. Advocating to eliminate overdoses is safe in the same way. Advocating to end most abortions is not. Totally subjective world views. A society that is deliberately cruel to its smallest, most helpless members should not be surprised when there are large problems in other areas of human concern and suffering.

  3. Fubarvt

    “which means that the state’s main purpose to manufacture scarcity and facilitate the transfer and concentration of wealth upward.”

    Yep. That’s exactly what our government, federal and state, was built for to “facilitate the transfer and concentration of wealth upward.” That is American democracy.


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