When the 2014 Vermont State Legislative Session opened in January, advocates were pleased that Governor Peter Shumlin (D) was committed to addressing growing poverty in their state. After hearing from a diverse group of advocates, Governor Shumlin released an anti-poverty initiative in December 2013 that would sufficiently fund housing and safety net programs and increase their efficiency. The initiative also created the Governor’s Council on Pathways from Poverty to determine the nature and primary causes of poverty in the state, to review the extent to which public and private agencies are addressing poverty, and to make recommendations to local, state and federal governments, non-profit agencies, charities, and other businesses on actions that should be taken to respond to the crisis. Erhard Mahnke, coordinator for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition (VAHC), an NLIHC State Coalition Partner, was appointed to the council and chairs the subcommittee on housing and homelessness.
In mid-2013, housing, homelessness, domestic violence, legal aid and other advocates, met with the Shumlin Administration to express concern about shrinking federal resources and limited state funds, which have exacerbated homelessness and poverty in the state. Vermont is struggling with record homelessness as shelters reached capacity and the cost of motels and hotels to house people without shelter soared (see Memo, 9/6/13). Advocates were also concerned with the administration’s plan to cut the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit program, and to put hard time limits on participants in Reach Up, the state welfare to work program.
In September 2013, at Governor Shumlin’s request, advocates submitted recommended actions the administration should take immediately to help people with difficult living conditions. Among their top-tier priorities included were targeted, strategic increases for key public benefit programs including the state’s federal food assistance program (3Squares VT), General Assistance, Reach Up, mental health rental assistance vouchers, and full funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the entity that administers the state’s housing and conservation trust fund. Increased state funding for rental assistance, the Emergency Solutions Grant Program, childcare financial assistance, and job creation programs were suggested to further reduce poverty in the state. They also recommended regulatory and operational changes at the Vermont Agency of Human Services to help these programs work more effectively. Advocates also suggested that the Governor establish an advisory council on ending poverty to make further, long term recommendations to him and to work with his administration on their implementation.
Advocates were heartened by the Governor’s swift response to their concerns. The majority of their budgetary recommendations, mainly those pertaining to housing, homelessness, and childcare, made it into his FY15 budget as a part of his plan to address the poverty crisis. “At their best, our anti-poverty and housing programs make sure that all Vermonters have food and shelter, as well as the help, education and training to find good jobs,” said Governor Shumlin in a press release that outlined the proposals he embraced. “All of us need help in different ways and at different times in our lives. Together we will make sure the programs we support for these efforts are successful and productive.”
The Governor’s Council on Pathways from Poverty, created by executive order the same day the proposals were released, is made up of advocates from the broad spectrum of human services, including housing, homeless services (including formerly homeless persons), healthcare, corrections, private sector developers, domestic violence, women’s concerns, and child and family services. In his new leadership role, Mr. Mahnke will work to keep the council and state administration informed of affordable housing concerns and strategies that should be employed. In addition, Mr. Mahnke is working with advocates in the VAHC network to urge state legislators to adopt Governor Shumlin’s proposed budget. The Vermont House has already included funding for most housing and homelessness programs at the governor’s requested levels. The session is expected to adjourn in May.
“Governor Shumlin has been very supportive of affordable housing and homelessness, so the initiatives we fought against last year came as an unpleasant surprise and brought a major outcry of opposition from low income and housing advocates,” said Mr. Mahnke. “We’ve been extremely heartened by the Governor’s willingness to open lines of communication over the last nine months, embrace many of our recommendations, and create this new forum for dialogue, collaboration and make significant progress in alleviating poverty in Vermont.”
For more information, contact Erhard Mahnke, Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, at firstname.lastname@example.org.