Rita Markley’s 2017 address

Posted On October 30, 2017 By | No Comments on Rita Markley’s 2017 address

The following is an edited version of COTS Executive Director Rita Markley’s keynote address at the COTS Annual Meeting & Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast on October 27, 2017.

Good morning and welcome to our (world famous) annual meeting and volunteer recognition breakfast.  Thank you for joining us.  This is the time of year when we slow our frenetic pace for a few hours to celebrate your many contributions to COTS. And reflect on why they matter.  It’s also when we give out a lot of awards. Please be assured that no Russians have meddled in our voting process for these honors.

It feels like an entire decade has passed since we gathered here last year, doesn’t it?  We’ve been whipsawed by so many unimaginable, dumbfounding events that time itself can’t quite encapsulate what’s occurred.

IMG_9189News of our world today careens between the incomprehensible and the inane – from the unfolding genocide in Myanmar, to endless speculation about the new season of the “Walking Dead” (or “Stranger Things”). From nuclear missiles in North Korea and blistering despair in Puerto Rico, to the miraculous wonders of Chia seeds (the very same seeds that once sprouted all those glorious Chia pets on late night TV – turns out, they’re edible.)

Maybe someone will figure out how to infuse them with maple and brew up the next latest greatest fancy Vermont beer (Watch out, Heady, it’s Chia time!)

The debates about standing or kneeling at footballs games consumed so much attention this past month that it’s knocked Jared-VAnka off the front pages – along with what’s happening at the EPA – a mixed blessing, I suppose.

If any one theme can characterize this past year, it’s that this has been a time of seismic displacement – jarring upheavals across every front: Brexit and the Trump election shook our Western political world; the Middle East is convulsed – with 12 million Syrians forcibly uprooted in a single year (nearly two-thirds of citizens). On a global scale, 65 million people have been uprooted by war, famine, flooding and no end of other disasters.

Closer to home, hurricane after hurricane slammed the Caribbean and our Gulf Coast, fires blazed across the West; and thousands upon thousands lost their homes in a heartbreaking flash.

Given this wrenching and chaotic backdrop, it’s no wonder that the few glimmers of positive economic news were given some prominence.  Even the most cynical analysts were cheered to report that:

Nationally:

  • Household income increased for second year in a row.
  • The percentage of Americans living in poverty has fallen; it’s now close to levels just before the Great Recession (2007).
  • The rate of children living in poverty dropped from 22% to 18% (or 16 million down to 13.2 million) that’s 2.8 million fewer kids living in poverty than there were two years ago.
  • Here in Vermont – welfare rolls have fallen by 33% in the past two years, our unemployment is its lowest rate since December 2000 at 2.9%.

And household Incomes are rising. So far this year, private employers have added 2,700 jobs. That is the strongest first three quarters we’ve seen in Vermont since 2011.

But here’s where it gets tricky. (Shhh, this is the part where I play the Grim Reaper and kill the joy.) Seriously, though, before we start dancing in the streets or planning victory parades, there’s some other data I want to share that puts these trends in clearer perspective.

Right now in America, we have 8.7 million working households, who fall below the poverty line. Nearly 22% of those living in poverty have employment income. So, while more people are working, and that’s wonderful news, their income gains are not enough to lift them from a precarious existence.

Recent increases have been unevenly distributed: Those in the bottom fifth of earners have yet to reach their pre-recession income (2007), while the top 5% are bringing home  8.7% more than they earned in 2007.

Compounding the pressure on those at the bottom is the ever rising cost of housing.

Just a few days ago, Freddie Mac released a new study showing that the number of affordable apartments for low-income families fell more than 60% between 2010 and 2016.  (Washington Post, October 23, 2017)

Many of those who lost their homes to foreclosure during the housing crash have never recovered.  More people are renting than ever before. According to the US Census, a record 43.3 million households were renters in 2016, representing a 26.5% increase since 2006.

This greater demand for rental housing is driving the cost well beyond the reach of too many.  In some places, the conversion of rental housing to Airbnb is escalating the housing crisis even further.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for the rental cost of a primary residence rose 31.9 % over last 10 years – higher than overall inflation of 19.1% during that time and well beyond the income gains for middle-income and low-wage earners.

Two years ago, a national study showed that 1 in 4 renter households nationwide was earning 30% or below the area median income (NLIHC 2015). 75% of those households (7.1 million) were paying more than half their incomes on monthly rent leaving very little left over for food, transportation or anything else.  That’s a staggering number of people living on a very thin margin. For those living below the poverty line, 1 in 4 spend 70% of their income on rent.

In other words, the absolute poorest, those with the least – are paying the most, proportionately, for their housing. It makes you wonder: How many of those families graduated from welfare into full-time employment only to find themselves teetering on the brink of destitution?

These national trends are playing out here, in every region of our state. Vermont earned the grim distinction this year of being among the top five states in the nation with the widest gap between average income for tenants and the cost of monthly rent (shortfall was $9.39)  The four states worse than Vermont were Hawaii, Maryland, California, and New Jersey. (NLIHC 2017 Out of Reach)

In Chittenden County, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom is now $1,395, which requires an annual income of $56,000 income to afford.  That’s up nearly a hundred bucks from two years ago. Not surprisingly, 7,500 households in this area are spending more than HALF their income to cover monthly rent.

All of these numbers matter. They show the precarious edge that our neighbors are navigating every day.  It’s nearly impossible to save any meaningful buffer under these conditions, the smallest setback or unexpected expense becomes a full-blown crisis.

Unlike the devastating sweep of a hurricane or the shattering wreckage of earthquakes and raging fires, we don’t see the seismic displacement that has unfolded slowly, inexorably, as housing pressures mounted and the number of homeless children increased beyond all precedent.

Last year, 1,095 children stayed Vermont’s publicly funded shelters.  That’s the highest number on record in the 16 years that our Agency of Human Services has tracked annual census. That’s a jump of 215 kids over last year. This increase occurred during a year when the overall number of people sheltered declined by 191 individuals.

So, even with the state’s addition of low-barrier and seasonal shelter beds these past few years, primarily targeted to chronic homeless individuals, the greatest increase was in the number of children whose families were destitute.  (Let me say that again: The overall shelter population fell statewide by 191, but the number of children skyrocketed up by 215 kids in a single year. 1,095 homeless children in Vermont last year. That’s more than the population of many small towns.)

Regrettably, the media as well as most public discussion remains focused on the 10% or 15% of homeless who are camping outside or chronic. There’s been no mention anywhere, no news coverage whatsoever, of the alarming surge in homeless children last year or what it bodes long term for so many vulnerable kids.

Why?

These children don’t stand out from other kids; they don’t want to. There’s no visible reminder to us of their presence, no vivid image to convey the enormity of what’s happening in their lives.  It’s far too easy to overlook them altogether.  With their backpacks and lunchboxes, they look like our own kids at the start of any school day.

But just imagine: 1,095 young children (nearly half are under the age of 5 years).

The kind of economic data I’ve shared with you this morning reveals a staggering truth that is too often obscured from view – a truth COTS has been trying mightily to highlight for the past five years: The worst damage of the Great Recession, with the most enduring impact, has fallen overwhelmingly on the narrow shoulders of young children.

Here’s the real kicker: 75% of low-income families who qualify for federal assistance do NOT receive it. There isn’t sufficient funding.

It’s worth noting that the annual cost of the mortgage tax deduction for homeowners is $71 billion – and, 90% of this benefit goes to household earning over $100,000.

On the other end of the scale, where those with the least are paying the most for housing, the annual allocation for housing subsidies is $29.9 billion, an amount so inadequate that it meets only a quarter of the need.

Oh, and if you’re wealthy enough to own two homes, claiming them both as personal residences, you can write off up to $1.1 million in deductions, even if you only use that house for a month in the summer, even if the purchase depleted the local housing stock of a primary residence.  A cost of $71 billion on a tax deduction where 90% of the benefit goes to those earning over 100,000 … What could possibly be wrong with that??

 

In this year of chaotic upheaval, when it often feels that we’ve fallen head first through the Looking Glass, and nothing at all seems certain or constant, it is such gift to look out on this room, and reflect on what brings us together.

 

Absolutely nothing compels you to be here, but you are. This isn’t a schmooze fest; there’s no booze (that I know of) or exquisite gourmet food. It’s surely not an elegant occasion (although Tim Coleman sometimes wears a tie); there’s no celebrity speaker.

 

And, let’s face it: Poverty and homelessness are not the most uplifting or cheery topics, especially first thing in the morning. But you come here anyway. (What’s wrong with you people??) Many of you have been showing up for well over two decades.

 

Your commitment is not fleeting or fragile.

 

That’s what we’re celebrating today. No matter what issue we’ve faced – a flooded out Daystation, opening a 50-bed warming shelter, building a new housing program for homeless veterans – you join with us, year after year, to break the fall for those who have no place left to turn.

 

In the wake of so many ominous changes this year – so many seismic disruptions, so much harsh division – it has been difficult to pause or reflect on much of anything without feeling completely overwhelmed. I think many of us feel an urgent longing to connect with the “better angels” of our nature, to remember the best, most generous part of ourselves and our community.

 

Through your support this year, COTS provided emergency support to125 homeless families and 457 individuals.

 

Our Housing Resource Center, the largest homeless prevention initiative in Vermont, provided rental arrearages and interventions that spared 284 households from eviction. That number includes nearly 300 children who did not have to suffer the upheaval/trauma of losing their homes.

 

We offered rapid rehousing assistance through security deposits and other financial support, like risk guarantees for landlords, to help 108 households move more quickly from shelter into stable housing.

We opened a new Daystation and served a noontime meal every day. We provided 23 units of transitional and 72 units of permanent housing to the poorest members of our community.  We’ve done extraordinary things this year despite the, eh, unceasing headwinds.

 

None of that would have been possible without you.  Or without the extraordinary talent and unique dedication of COTS remarkable staff.  I’d like to ask them to stand up so you can see the people who work tirelessly every day of the year to make sure there’s always a safe welcoming place for those who are too often forgotten uncounted or invisible to the rest of the world.

 

When you give your time or financial support to places like COTS, you are doing far more than just writing a check or lending a hand. By acting on your compassion, you are joining with us in the most tangible way to create a better, more humane world.

 

Even more, you are standing firm with us in the unwavering belief that no one should be denied a chance or left behind just because they are poor. And, in doing this, you affirm the infinite promise of every human life. There’s no greater gift you could possibly give, and for that, we thank you.

 

Categories: Advocacy, Children, Events, Families, Homeless Prevention, Homelessness, Staff and Board, Volunteers
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