By Virginia Dean
When the pandemic hit last year, a wave of people moved to Vermont seeking safety and community. After all, the state was deemed one of the safest areas in the country. The challenge for some in-movers, however, was that Covid-19 tightened the housing market. According to local sources, out-of-state buyers spiked in 2020, increasing 38% over the previous year. The result? Market volatility and inflation for would-be buyers and an already-scarce rental market even more difficult to navigate.
And for those residents who were earning minimum wage without any substantial savings, the situation was far worse. According to Vermont Business Magazine, to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent in Vermont in 2021, full-time workers need to earn $23.68 an hour or $49,258 annually. The minimum wage in Vermont is currently $11.75. And, for those families out of work, the situation was and continues to be dire.
For those who fall into the last group — the homeless — there are few resources available locally. Rutland County, for instance, has three shelters: The Open Door Mission (serving homeless individuals without minor children), New Story (serving individuals fleeing domestic violence), and The Dodge House (serving homeless veterans). There are presently no family shelters available in Rutland County.
Enter Rutland’s Promise, a collaborative, grassroots community project offering an innovative and sustainable solution to Rutland County’s families experiencing homelessness. Created and presided over by Rebekah Stephens, Rutland’s Promise provides a safe temporary living space for families while they connect with existing state programs and local organizations that focus on transition to permanent housing, access to employment, financial resources, and benefits.
“We’re not going to know the full extent of the pandemic impact on families for quite some time,” Stephens said in a recent interview.
Nonetheless, what we do know is that homeless shelters were shuttered last year, and the state rushed to rehouse those who needed a space to isolate initially. The homeless were sent to motels and hotels across the state. Of the state’s $1.25 billion in coronavirus federal aid, $34 million went to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to build new housing and improve housing for the homeless. However, these funds were provided only once and weren’t enough, as there were more people in need than the number of motel rooms available. And even though there were efforts to dramatically increase the number of services available to the homeless, providing these supports was never intended to be a permanent solution.
Transitioning to a more sustainable scale and model of emergency housing provided by such socioeconomic initiatives as Rutland’s Promise allows for the opportunity to continue to ensure Vermonters experiencing housing crises are connected to necessary and critical supports.
“Families will be expected to secure employment if not already employed, connect with existing state programs and local organizations to secure permanent stable housing (rental or purchase of a home) and/or food access support, attend school (children), and connect with a medical provider if not already engaged,” said Stephens.
The seeds of Rutland’s Promise were planted when Stephens attended a Continuum of Care subcommittee on Homelessness Awareness meeting in June 2019.
“During that meeting, I received a prompting from the Lord to have a conversation with Adam Sancic of the Agency of Human Services, who had mentioned the need for a homeless shelter in Rutland,” said Stephens. “I had no idea what the need in Rutland County was around homelessness, but I stepped out in obedience and that was the beginning of Rutland’s Promise.”
While speaking with families struggling with homelessness, Stephens noted their pleas to have a safe, stable place to live for at least two months to get back on their feet.
“Often families that are experiencing homelessness are moving frequently from place to place, sometimes as often as on a daily basis,” said Stephens. “This makes efforts to secure stable food and medical access, and educational services, almost impossible. A family without a stable living situation can’t concentrate on anything other than making it through the day.”
Rutland’s Promise is a community collaborative rather than a faith-based organization. As a non-profit, it is privately funded through community donations and private grant funding. There is no state or federal funding.
“Our decision to remain 100% community supported is out of a desire to remain financially sustainable,” said Stephens. “Rutland’s Promise has beenintentionally designed to meet the needs of the Rutland County community.”
Currently, the organization is at 78% of full funding for Year One, Stephens noted. It has received an anonymous donation of $30,000 from a local business that has committed to match every donation received up to $30,000. A donation of $85 provides one night of safe housing, warm beds, meals, and time for each family to explore opportunities to become once again independent, confident, and strong, Stephens explained.
Staffed solely by trained volunteers, Rutland’s Promise will be serving one to two families at a time. It will also tend to families that are living doubled up with a relative due to economic hardship. This population of families currently falls outside the state’s definition of homelessness. The board of directors is representative of the service area and has been selected for its expertise in community affairs, local government, finance and banking, legal affairs, trade unions, as well as social service agencies.
Measures of success of the new program, slated to open in November 2021, will be measured through retention of stable housing and maintenance of community connections for the families exiting Rutland’s Promise, Stephens said.
There are currently over 20 community partners and 35 volunteers supporting Rutland’s Promise, she added.