Panel describes poverty, remedies (Burlington Free Press)

By Nancy Remsen, Staff Writer

Rita Markley sketched a stark picture of some of the poverty present Monday night in Burlington.

In one homeless shelter in the city, 16 children were finishing dinner and getting ready to do their homework, she said. In another shelter, 11 children were getting ready for bed.

"That's 27 children, and we are expecting two new families tomorrow with another five kids," Markley, executive director of the Committee for Temporary Shelter, told an audience of 55 attending a public forum sponsored by the Vermont Child Poverty Council.

"As the cost of housing has skyrocketed, so has the number of homeless families," she said. "With no margin, the smallest emergency quickly becomes a full-blown crisis."

Elizabeth Baker knows firsthand the plight of the families in the shelters on this night, she said. The mother of four hit bottom two years ago, lost an apartment and took refuge in a COTS shelter. She's beginning to turn her life around, she said. She has hopes and dreams that her children will know a better life.

"I want them to be able to go to college, to get a job, to do what I haven't been able to do," Baker said.

Baker and Markley were members of a panel asked to describe the biggest challenges facing low-income Vermonters and some strategies that work that could help the poor climb up the financial ladder to a better life.

Members of the Vermont Child Poverty Council, created by the Legislature, want to hear potential remedies, because the council has a challenging mandate: plan how to cut the child poverty rate in half within 10 years. The council will hold forums in every county. This was the third.

Nancy Radley, a first-grade teacher at H.O. Wheeler School in Burlington, said more preschool programs would broaden the cultural and literacy experiences of children from low-income families. She noted that parents struggling to make ends meet often don't have money or time to take their children to libraries, to read to them or expose them to museums or dining out.

"What I see with a lot of children is they are bright and capable of learning, but they come in behind," Radley said. "They just haven't had a lot of experiences."

Shana Casava described living in poverty for much of her life. She bounced among shelters growing up and later, as an adult, found herself homeless. She said people from poor families often don't have the money to buy their children the equipment or supplies they need to participate in sports or other activities.

"So they end up in the street," Casava said. "Make places for them to go. I really think more activities should happen for these kids."

Markley suggested expanding the program that helps clients pay back rent because it could save more families from losing their homes. "It's so restrictive," she said.

Tim Searles, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, called for more money to help people pay fuel bills. Heating aid hasn't kept pace with the mushrooming cost of fuels, he said.

After the panel discussion, the crowd broke up into small groups and brainstormed more ideas to share with the poverty council.

Cynthia LaWare, secretary of human services, sat with one group. This was the second forum she had attended, and she said she plans to go to at least three more. "I'm here to hear what the communities are saying about what their needs are," she said. With state officials in the midst of developing budget plans for next year, LaWare said, "This is critical information."

Mayor Bob Kiss thanked the council and the Legislature for deciding to attack poverty. "There are plenty of people who are being left behind," he said. "I hope before 10 years are over, you will have changed the face of Vermont."