On April 24, 2024

A broken system

By Ross Connelly

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ross Connelly of Hardwick. Now retired, he was the editor and co-publisher of The Hardwick Gazette from 1986 to 2017. He is a past president of the Vermont Press Association and the New England Press Association.

A quick look at the internet provides ample evidence that a lot of people in Vermont and around the country don’t have a place to live or enough food to eat. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports about 653,000 Americans experienced homelessness in January 2023. That’s a 12.1% increase from the same report in 2022.

The research shows Vermont has the second-highest rate of homelessness in the U.S., with 50.9 people per 10,000 people. From 2018 to 2023, homelessness in Vermont increased from 20.6 per 10,000 people to 50.9 — the biggest increase in any state. (In 2022, the official poverty rate was 11.5%, with 37.9 million people in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

The data is there. How easy it is to forget real people make up those numbers. People who live in small towns and the state’s cities but don’t have their own apartment or home, don’t have enough money to put needed food on the table. Homelessness and going hungry exist all over Vermont.

Filmmaker Bess O’Brien gives people — who are experiencing homeless and don’t have enough food to eat — their voice in her new film, “Just Getting By.” The people speak powerfully as they recount their lives living in motels, in emergency shelters, couch surfing, staying with friends and relatives, sleeping in their cars, in tents and on the street.

The people are Vermonters, and their stories are compelling. They are our neighbors, invisible and seen, in all our communities, in Hardwick and beyond. 

They comprise the data that policymakers study but too often forget that, yes, those numbers are real people. They are people who are working hard, often holding two or three jobs, but jobs that come with a paycheck too small to pay the rent, if a place can even be found. The money people earn doesn’t add up to what it costs to also buy the groceries, fix the car or clothe the kids.

It is too easy to blame people experiencing homelessness for not having a place to live, for not working hard enough to live “like we do.” Too easy to worry they are dangerous. Too easy to blame them for making us feel uncomfortable.

Feeling uncomfortable and in danger need to be turned around. Better to feel uncomfortable and in danger living in a society that accepts homelessness and going hungry as normal. That says a lot about us.

The people who spoke with O’Brien had courage to share their experiences with her, with us. They dispel the stereotypes and the easy out of blaming the victim. What they impart is important for all of us to hear, for all of us to consider, for all of us to not ignore.

A system that tells people to make do until more houses and apartments are built is a broken system. Contact legislators and let them know the tax structure is unfair and needs to be changed. 

All people need a secure place to live that is affordable, now. Refusing to change needs to be uncomfortable.

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