As spectators filed into Burlington’s Waterfront Theatre for the September 24 gubernatorial debate, more than 60 homelessness advocates rallied outside the building’s Lake Street entrance demanding emergency housing assistance before winter sets in.
Although their chant — “Hey, hey, ho, ho! We ain’t got no place to go!” — was directed at the candidates, it was really meant for Gov. James Douglas. The crowd included residents of a shelter on lower Church Street and the directors of three nonprofits that serve Vermont’s homeless: The Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS)  in Burlington, the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter  in Vergennes and Samaritan House  in St. Albans.
Noting they are turning homeless people away for lack of space, the shelter directors gathered outside to demand a $500,000 emergency appropriation from the state’s $60 million “Rainy Day” fund .
“A lot of people are really suffering,” said former state auditor Elizabeth Ready, who now directs the John W. Graham Shelter. “The shelters are really trying to keep up, and the housing organizations are trying to house people, but the economic forces are such right now that too many people are going over the edge.”
According to the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition , about 3500 Vermonters stayed in homeless shelters last year; the average length of stay was 33 days — more than twice as long as the 2000 average. A one-night survey conducted last January by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness  found 2507 Vermonters were homeless, and almost half of them were part of a family with children.
With those figures in mind, and an eye on the worsening economy, Ready and other shelter directors are turning anywhere they can for help. Last week, Ready asked the National Guard  to convert an empty Vergennes armory into an emergency shelter. She is also talking with local churches and federal agencies for help accommodating the five to seven homeless families her shelter turns away every day.
Vermont homeless shelters currently benefit from annual federal “Emergency Shelter ” grants. The state’s “General Assistance ” program helps pay for emergency motel accommodations when homeless shelters are full.
That won’t be enough head off this year’s crisis, according to Erhard Mahnke, coordinator for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition. He said shelter directors are improvising “ad hoc” solutions for the impending “tidal wave” of homelessness. “They feel like they’re left on their own,” said Mahnke. “There needs to be better involvement by central state planning.”
Linda Ryan, whose Samaritan House in St. Albans already has a waiting list of 35 homeless people, said the Vermont Interagency Council on Homelessness , an 18-member group of state officials and housing advocates, needs to help shelter directors devise strategies for feeding and housing the homeless.
“Our budgets cannot sustain growing numbers of homeless,” Ryan said. “We need help, we need alternate sites and we need more staff.”
Agency of Human Services  Deputy Director Patrick Flood said council members are currently coordinating “Housing Now,” a new initiative that would link state and local responses to homelessness. The agency hopes to increase eligibility for General Assistance funding, and to allow those who already qualify to spend the money on back-rent and mortgage payments.
As for a $500,000 emergency appropriation, Flood said it probably couldn’t be approved until January at the earliest. In the meantime, he is asking AHS field service directors to devise a plan for responding to this winter’s crisis.
“The governor’s goal is that nobody in the state of Vermont should freeze this winter, and we want to do everything we can to make sure people are under cover and sheltered,” Flood said. “I think we have a little bit of time before the snow flies, but we’re going to have to work pretty darn hard.”
Douglas avoided last week’s protest rally by entering the Waterfront Theatre via the front door. But his major rivals, Democrat Gaye Symington and Independent Anthony Pollina, both stopped to talk with homeless advocates outside a back entrance.
Pollina said Douglas has ignored the state’s growing homeless population. “You need a governor who is more in touch with what people are going through,” he said.
Minutes later, Symington arrived and pledged to work on legislation that would preserve mobile home parks and create more affordable housing. “Its great to see you here,” she told the advocates. “Your voice really matters.”
“But here’s the thing, Gaye,” replied Rita Markley, the longtime executive director of COTS. “This summer, we had to turn away 30 families. This is the summer months . . . Those families with kids have no place to go, and every night it’s getting colder.”
Walking up College Street after the debate, a homeless graphic designer named Ali explained he’s currently on the waiting list for federally subsidized Section 8 housing. After a spell of camping and “couch surfing” this summer, Ali scored a bed at the COTS Waystation on lower Church Street.
“If they turn me down in the middle of the winter,” he said, “that’s the end of me.”