October 3, 2016

How a community partnership in Vermont helped erase a 7-year rise in homelessness

Renewal Award winner Champlain Housing Trust built a statewide collaboration that delivered results. Here's How.

According to the annual “Point in Time” count of homeless individuals across the nation, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States decreased each year between 2007 and 2015, with an overall decrease of 12.8 percent during that period. While this is undoubtedly positive news, many advocates point to the fact that at least 560,000 people are without a home in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet.

Embedded in this good news a troubling trend emerges. The states with the highest percentage increases in homelessness between 2007 and 2015 were mostly rural, and all saw significant jumps in homelessness over that period. Here in bucolic Vermont, homelessness grew by a whopping 47.1 percent between 2007 and 2015, the sixth worse in the country.

It is in this context that the Champlain Housing Trust–the largest affordable housing provider in the state’s most populous region–made a commitment to end chronic homelessness. This commitment was reinforced through a collaboration with a variety of partners to solve what has seemed an intractable problem.

The turnaround has been dramatic: in 2016, overall homelessness in Vermont dropped by 28 percent, chronic homelessness dropped 25 percent and the number of families with children without a home dropped 20 percent. And the numbers are more dramatic in Chittenden County, home to one-quarter of all Vermonters, where advocates adopted the effective strategy employed by the 100,000 Homes Campaign in late 2014.

In one year, we’ve erased seven years of growth in homelessness.

But there’s more to be done. Harbor Place, a motel owned and operated by Champlain Housing Trust since 2013 to address emergency needs of Vermonters when shelters are full, still provides accommodations and services every night to dozens of people who have no other place to turn.

Out of this effort, new partnerships have evolved that similarly have shown immediate results and promise lasting benefit. The University of Vermont Medical Center looked at data from the 95 patients discharged to Harbor Place and documented a savings of almost $1 million in health care costs from these guests, along with a 42 percent reduction in Emergency Department visits, and 68 percent fewer inpatient admissions. If this type of result comes from emergency housing from a motel, it’s certain that permanent housing will have even more of an impact.

It’s well documented that for taxpayers, homelessness is really expensive: a study done in San Francisco showed it costs $80,000 each year in a myriad of programs to serve people who are homeless in that city. Providing housing with services costs 56 percent less–and results in increased stability, dignity and opportunity.

Collaboration with Community Health Centers of Burlington resulted in creating Beacon Apartments in South Burlington, a former motel the Housing Trust acquired and converted to 19 apartments for people who have been chronically homeless and who have medical vulnerabilities. In the video above, you’ll meet John Graves, a Beacon Apartment resident–and former guest at Harbor Place–who speaks about how he now has a place to store his belongings and can aspire to get work. The health center provides case management with funding from the University of Vermont Medical Center and Vermont Community Foundation.

Seeing the tremendous opportunity and benefit to reducing homelessness on their bottom line and the health of the community, the University of Vermont Medical Center recently allocated $3 million for creating new housing with services. This will help prevent hospital beds from being used as housing of last resort.

Most of us feel compassion for those in need. Many agree there’s a moral imperative to help. We’ve been winning the debate when we focus on our hearts and minds, but we need also to win the one about the checkbook. We’ve been spending more to keep people homeless than it costs to provide a home.

More than hope, there’s confidence. With the partnerships and collaboration underway, tackling big problems like ending chronic homelessness in Vermont don’t seem so insurmountable anymore.

Chris Donnelly

Champlain Housing Trust