Working poor losing their homes (St. Albans Messenger)

Area, state shelters struggle as fuel prices hit hard


ST. ALBANS CITY — Rising fuel costs for transportation and heating are pushing more families - including those with jobs -- into homelessness, according Linda Ryan, director of Samaritan House, a shelter in St. Albans City.
"The spike in fuel costs has driven people who normally wouldn't have become homeless into homelessness," Ryan said.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., supported Ryan's view, telling the Messenger, "If you are struggling to pay your bills every day of every month, having to pay hundreds of dollars more to heat your home than you did just a few years before is extremely challenging. I have no doubt that in many cases this is indeed the last straw."
Nationwide, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association projects that the cost of heating a home with fuel oil will be $2,157, as prices hit $3.48 a gallon. This is an increase of 47.3 percent over last winter when the average cost was $1,465. In 2005, the cost for heating a home for the winter with fuel oil was $935.
About half of the people coming to the local shelter have jobs, according to Ryan, adding that the shelter has housed families with two working parents.
"The homeless people in the shelters look just like you and me," she said. "The people here are simply people who simply cannot afford to live."
Ryan serves as chair of the State Coalition to End Homelessness. She reports that the trends in the St. Albans shelter apply statewide — increasing numbers of families and women, and more working people. Every shelter in Vermont is currently full and all are receiving multiple calls per day from people looking for assistance.
In spite of the rising demand, shelters are actually serving fewer people as it becomes harder to move people into permanent housing. The average stay in a homeless shelter in Vermont was 25 days in 2006, according to the Emergency Shelter Grant Program Final Report on State Fiscal Years 2000-6. This is more than double the average length of stay in 2000.
The department of Housing and Urban Development listed the fair market rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment in Vermont as $797 per month in 2006. To afford that rent and still have money left over for other necessities, a family would have to make $31,897 annually, according to a report by the Vermont Housing Awareness Campaign.
Adding to the problem is a lack of available funds for housing support for the poor.
The Vermont State Housing Authority closed its Section 8 housing list on August 15, because of a five-year wait time. Section 8 provides housing assistance in the form of rent vouchers for poor families.
Also part of the problem according to Ryan, are requirements that people applying for an apartment in subsidized housing have good credit. "My argument is that anyone who is homeless is going to have bad credit," Ryan says, adding that agencies need to look more deeply into the credit history of applicants, and not just at their credit rating at the time they became homeless.
Samaritan House has 10 beds in the shelter proper and two apartments. One apartment, which opened in January, houses families. So far six families have stayed in the apartment before successfully transitioning to permanent housing. Two parents with three young children are currently staying in it.
The other apartment houses two adult men who pay $50 per week rent. The program was started in April 2006 and 16 men have since moved through the program to permanent housing. Four were asked to leave because of a violation of shelter rules. By staying in the shelter, the men are given an opportunity to save money for a deposit and first month's rent while also establishing credit.
Only four men have been asked to leave the program because of a rules infractions, said Ryan.
Every person staying in the shelter has a caseworker assisting them with finding employment and permanent housing and the shelter works closely with other area agencies. Any residents with substance abuse problems are required to enter a program and every adult resident must take a breathalyzer test when entering the building.
"Somebody has to address the economy. You can't just look at affordable housing," Ryan says when asked about solutions. "You have to look at a living wage, fuel costs, eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid. It all has to be addressed together," she said.