In our work at COTS, we are frequently asked to identify the greatest challenge in meeting the needs of those who are homeless in Vermont. Is it the lack of substance abuse treatment options, which forces people to live on the streets? Or does Vermont’s reputation for supportive services draw people to move here? These are common assumptions that can obscure the true dynamics of homelessness in our community.
In fact the lack of affordable housing has always been and remains the single largest factor in preventing housing stability. The fair market rents for one- and two-bedroom apartments in Chittenden County are $1,080 and $1,395, respectively. Most analyses indicate that an “affordable” rent is one that consumes 30 percent or less of a household’s income. So in Chittenden County, the average two-bedroom rental requires an annual income of $56,000. That means 7,500 households in this area are spending more than half their income to cover monthly rent.
With this challenging affordability scenario, many people in our community live at the margin of housing retention—that is, a change in job hours or a sudden expensive illness can put a family’s housing in jeopardy.
COTS, founded in 1982, started with emergency shelter. Over our 35-year history, COTS has continued to provide an emergency crisis response while also investing in long-term solutions to end homelessness. As such, we still operate three overnight shelters that are open 365 days year, with two exclusively for families.
Last year, 1,095 children stayed in Vermont’s publicly funded shelters. That’s the highest number on record in the 16 years that Vermont’s Agency of Human Services has tracked annual census—and a jump of 215 kids over last year. This increase occurred during a year when the overall number of people sheltered declined by 191 individuals.
These children are often the unseen face of homelessness in Vermont. Why is this? These children don’t stand out from other children; they don’t want to. There’s no visible reminder to us of their presence, no vivid image to convey the enormity of what’s happening in their lives. With their backpacks and lunchboxes, they look like our own kids at the start of any school day. But just imagine: 1,095 young children (nearly half are under the age of five).
We know that, once homeless, the effect on adults, and on children in particular, is devastating. Studies show that homeless children have a greatly increased risk of learning challenges, depression and other health issues. We also know that, once homeless, the societal and financial impacts grow significantly as an expansive array of services is brought to bear.
But there is hope! At COTS, we focus on preventing homelessness. We strive to intervene in situations that are likely to result in loss of housing and help families avert the crisis of homelessness entirely. The most effective strategy in slowing the rise in homelessness is to prevent its occurrence and keep people in their homes. To do this, COTS’ Housing Resource Center provides a range of preventive services to those who are “marginally housed.”
Our network of service partners and school contacts and our relationships with landlords help us identify those at risk of losing their housing. After an analysis of a client’s situation, COTS may step in with financial assistance (perhaps a bridge of one to two months’ rent, a mortgage payment or a security deposit), budgeting counseling or help with an apartment search. In some cases, additional services are needed, and COTS will make a referral to our social service partners.
The average amount of financial assistance to COTS prevention clients is $1,000. COTS continues to increase our investment of our public and private funding in our prevention programs. In 2017, we helped 392 households, including 367 children, with prevention and rehousing assistance.
We are often asked: “What can I do to help?” There are many ways to help—please check out our website, cotsonline.org, which includes specific details on a variety of volunteering options, among other ways to help. Consider making lunch for our Daystation, our daytime center for homeless adults, where we provide a noontime meal 365 days a year. Or join us at the COTS Walk on May 6 (bring your family, form a team, or invite your co-workers).
The impact of any volunteer’s efforts are significant; for those who choose to donate money, for every $1,000 we raise for our prevention services, we are able to keep a family in their home. We like to call that the “Power of a Thousand Dollars.”
Denise Fitzgerald Danyow has lived in Charlotte for 25 years. She is the director of finance and operations at COTS.