October 1st, 2010

Proposed bill would help homeless in Vermont

Legislation introduced in the U.S. House could combat homelessness in small states by increasing the small-state minimum allotment for the Projects for Assistance in Transition for Homelessness (PATH) program.

Vermont Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) co-sponsored the PATH Enhancement Bill, which would increase the small-state minimum from $300,000 to $750,000 per year.

Created in 1990, PATH funds state efforts to provide outreach and services to those suffering from mental illness or substance abuse and who are at risk of becoming homeless. While many states have seen increased funding since the program was established, a number of smaller states – including Vermont – have received no increases in many years, if at all, over the past two decades.

Administered by the Department of Mental Health in Vermont, PATH funds support programs at several community health centers, support groups and havens, including the Brattleboro Area Drop in Center, which runs an overflow shelter in Brattleboro that last winter sheltered more than 130 people, most PATH clients.

Melinda Bussino, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop in Center, says an increase in the PATH minimum is vital to assisting Vermonters who are at-risk for homelessness and have mental illness.

“These are the people who are the most vulnerable and the programs that are serving them are able to reach out because we are a little less traditional than community mental health centers,” and able to reach many clients who might be “service resistant” to traditional mental health programs, she says.

Bussino says in the past year, she’s seen a 26 percent increase in those who are homeless or at risk of being homeless.

Of the clients served at the Brattleboro Area Drop in Center last year, 90 percent were people who were eligible for PATH. Clients “have so many challenges that they have a very difficult time accessing mainstream services and getting the kind of supports they need,” Bussino adds. “So this PATH program is vital.”

She says that before the economy hit bottom, she observed a steady increase of six to 15 percent of people needing services in Vermont. In the past two years, “we’ve had a 24-26 percent increase in people we are seeing who are at risk.” A community food shelf has seen a 31 percent increase in the past year, a measure of the working poor and how they are struggling, she adds.

The Center’s clients come from various backgrounds and include those with posttraumatic stress disorder or who were recently discharged from mental health facilities.

The PATH enhancement bill could allow her program to have another person as a case manager or advocate, who could help people to get back into the system and back into the routine of things. “Because we reach out to folks who are so desperate and so disenfranchised, we’re doing a lot of basic stuff,” like helping them navigate the state system, find an apartment or locate services.

“One of the greatest things about our program is that other than myself, every one of our staff has been homeless at one point in time,” Bussino says. “The message it really gives to people who are homeless is that they are just you and me, with a lot of bad things happening.”

The bill was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Welch and Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY) are working to try to bring it to a vote on the House floor.

“Homelessness continues to plague communities throughout Vermont, but those who fight this endemic problem have been forced to do so with fewer and fewer resources,” Welch says. “We must ensure that states like Vermont have the tools they need to support those in need.”

By Pamela Berard

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