Homelessness Threatens Rural Students Amid Affordable Housing Crunch

With pandemic rental assistance programs phasing out, families and schools in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom region grapple with a tight housing market

By Asher Lehrer-Small | February 3, 2023
Chaunceey Chery in downtown St. Johnsbury. (Asher Lehrer-Small)

St. Johnsbury, Vermont 

By the time Chaunceey Chery turned 18, he had moved nearly two dozen times. 

For years, he bounced between apartments and hotel rooms in Vermont and Florida as his mother struggled with substance abuse. His family, he said, spent more hours than he can estimate driving back and forth on I-95, which runs the length of the Eastern Seaboard. 

As a teenager, Chery tried out online school to maintain continuity amid the many moves, but family turmoil and his own mental health challenges prevented him from fully engaging in lessons. For nearly two years, he hardly learned anything, he said.

At 15, he began living with relatives in northeastern Vermont, hoping for more stability. He began regularly attending school in an alternative program meant for students facing adverse circumstances and was able to land a job, but he felt he was “walking on eggshells” living in a space that was not his own. Meanwhile, his housing nightmare continued as one aunt got evicted, another had landlord difficulties and his uncle’s house got foreclosed. 

“I felt like I was quadruple homeless at that point,” he said.

Circumstances like those that Chery endured as a young person trying to survive and stay in school now threaten to become increasingly common in rural areas, as experts warn of a looming affordable housing crisis in remote towns and villages.

In St. Johnsbury, Vermont where Chery lives, the school district’s homeless liaison, Kara Lufkin, said her caseload has jumped to nearly two dozen students this school year after hovering just above a dozen for the two years prior. Lori Robinson, the liaison for a nearby school district in the wider Northeast Kingdom region, also said she’s now serving the most students she ever has since starting the role in 2020, when a nationwide eviction moratorium protected families. 

Vermont has the nation’s second-highest rate of homelessness per capita. (Asher Lehrer-Small)

Federal funding for low-cost rural rentals has been slashed in recent decades. A U.S. Department of Agriculture program that once helped finance the construction of new apartments in sparsely populated areas of the country has been cut by 95% — squeezing an option long relied upon by many rural households.

But local factors also play in as Vermont is phasing out its pandemic rental assistance program. Rebecca Lewis, regional director of Northeast Kingdom Community Action, said her organization is bracing for “a lot more” families to lose their housing in the next six months.

Vermont has the second-highest per capita rate of homelessness in the nation, lower only than California’s, according to a December 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At the same time, the Green Mountain state provides temporary shelter to a higher share of its residents without homes than any other state, with 98% safely indoors on a point-in-time count from last year.

While dwarfed in size by places like New York City, where the number of homeless students exceeds 100,000, rural students without housing face challenges that are distinct from those in metro centers. Emergency shelters, public transportation and cell reception tend to be scarce or nonexistent. Quiet places to work like libraries and coffee shops may be miles away. And in far north regions like St. Johnsbury, one winter night without proper shelter can be lethal.

As a homeless liaison, Lufkin understands it’s her job to mitigate these difficulties as much as possible. She coordinates transportation to and from school when families need it and often provides youth in need of winter gear with jackets, hats and gloves. Robinson, in the district next door, celebrated being able to scrape together the equipment and transportation for a student on her caseload to play football in the fall and basketball this winter. 

Still, much remains beyond their control, Lufkin said, and some conditions can cripple learning for homeless youth regardless of whether they’re happening in a teeming city or the remote reaches of New England. 

“[Students] may not be sleeping as well if they’re sleeping on a couch,” she said. “If you’re hungry, your focus isn’t on reading that textbook or doing that math work.”

These are just a few of the many factors that explain why youth experiencing homelessness have worse education outcomes than any other peer group, with the lowest overall attendance, standardized test scores and high school graduation rates of all students. The limited data that exist suggest roughly the same share of youth in rural areas experience homelessness as in urban areas, but with far less of a support system.

“It’s definitely a survival mindset,” said Chery. 

For the embattled teen, a level of stability finally came when, at 18, he entered a temporary housing program for homeless youth run by Northeast Kingdom Youth Services. He finally had a space to himself without worrying about eviction.

“It felt like I could breathe for a second,” he said.

He began taking courses at the local community college, which conveniently was walking distance from where he was staying. He applied to nearby Northern Vermont University for the spring term and was accepted, attending school there for three months until the COVID school shutdowns of March 2020 derailed his plans.

The disruption underscored the fragility of his situation, he realized. At his new college, he had depended on his dorm room as his only place to stay and often felt a level of “imposter syndrome,” he said, as it seemed that other students were more prepared for the coursework and campus culture. He had a long way to go before fully recovering from the traumas of his teenage years, he thought to himself.

“I got out of those situations that I was in, but now there’s so much more work to do trying to build a life, lay the foundation.”

Homeschooling while homeless

For Elysia Gingras, the spiral into homelessness didn’t come until she was in her 30s with five children, who now range in age from 9 to 13. 

The once financially comfortable seven-member family now stays in two rooms at an inn in St. Johnsbury as a part of Northeast Kingdom Community Action’s supportive housing program. The family burned through roughly $15,000 in savings, the mother said, after their dog attacked their nephew in an incident that was heavily covered in local outlets. While the family followed the injured toddler to hospitals in Boston and Hanover, New Hampshire, a health inspector condemned their apartment of five years, forcing them to crash at a nearby Comfort Inn — a move they thought would last a couple of weeks, tops. 

Now two years and hundreds of unsuccessful rental applications later, Gingras has come to understand just how tough the area’s housing market is. Even with her husband working full time as a roofer making over $20 an hour and her selling Arbonne cosmetics part time, nothing has panned out yet.

“I look [for rentals] every day, and I’m not exaggerating,” Gingras said. 

“Every place that we thought we were gonna get, it was like this constant roller coaster of getting your hopes up and finding out, nope, we didn’t get that one.”

Families experiencing homelessness in St. Johnsbury have more access to services than those in the surrounding towns, which are even more rural and remote. (Asher Lehrer-Small)

Low-priced housing units in the Northeast Kingdom have been in short supply for years, explained Patrick Shattuck. He works as executive director of Rural Edge, the region’s main affordable housing development organization and its largest landlord. The Kingdom’s population of roughly 65,000 is both shrinking and aging, he said, meaning big houses that used to be occupied by young families now often hold just one or two elderly inhabitants. 

At the same time, the rise of seasonal tourism — with Burke Mountain Resort enticing skiers in the winter and the popular Kingdom Trails drawing mountain bikers in the summer — have led some property owners to convert rental units into more lucrative AirBnBs. Despite the efforts of Shattuck’s organization to maintain and add affordable options to the market, apartment prices have soared. Local institutions like schools and hospitals, he said, have lost would-be hires because the candidates can’t find affordable places to stay.

For the Gingras family, the housing squeeze has translated into some major life adjustments. Elysia Gingras, previously the type to bake homemade bread and meal-plan a month in advance, had to serve cereal and Hot Pockets when they first moved to the inn due to lack of kitchen access. 

She homeschools four out of her five children from their two motel rooms, but they now complete worksheets on clipboards rather than at the kitchen table. By homeschooling, Gingras is able to incorporate the family’s Christian faith into the school day, teaching prayer alongside math lessons, spelling quizzes and visits to the local Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium. She ensures all her children make their beds nicely each morning so their shared area stays orderly and there’s floorspace during the day for group yoga breaks.

But for all the family’s work to maintain normalcy, keeping up morale can be tough at times, the mother told The 74 just after New Year’s. The last few months were especially difficult. 

“Everybody’s trying to be joyful because it’s the holidays, but how do you really have a merry Christmas when you’re all in a hotel?” she said. “When we see [the other unhoused parents] outside and we’re like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ It doesn’t even matter what you say … because we’re here. We’re still here. And it’s like that unspoken acknowledgement of pain.”

Burke Mountain Resort, which bills itself as “the last little corner of Vermont,” and the nearby Kingdom Trails have contributed to increases in seasonal tourism, prompting some property owners to convert rental units into AirBnBs. (Burke Mountain Resort/Facebook)

Identifying and supporting students

Gingras, with her self-created curricula and Harry Potter read-alouds, exemplifies something Brittnee Dwyer, two months into a job with Northeast Kingdom Community Action, has quickly come to realize.

“It doesn’t mean if someone’s homeless that they’re a bad parent,” the newly hired housing specialist said.

But still, Asia Goldsmith, the Gingras’s neighbor at the inn, sometimes can’t avoid the creeping thought that she’s failing her three children. After spending the summer couch surfing and camping, the four of them have been at the hotel since September. She’s proud of her kids for earning good grades this school year thanks to afterschool tutoring provided by the district, she said. But she asks them to conceal their home life as much as possible.

“They hate that they can’t have friends over, but, I don’t know, I’m embarrassed,” Goldsmith said.

Her family had not yet connected with the school district’s homeless liaison, she said.

“I imagine there are probably families out there who are not on our list but are maybe experiencing homelessness for one reason or another,” Lufkin acknowledged. She said she couldn’t comment on individual families’ cases for privacy reasons.

Rebecca Lewis, left, and Brittnee Dwyer, right, of Northeast Kingdom Community Action stand in their organization’s no-cost store where struggling families can access food and clothing. (Asher Lehrer-Small)

The district is working to improve its efforts at identifying students experiencing homelessness so they can provide them with the needed services, she said. The liaison runs professional development sessions to help school staff learn the possible signs of housing insecurity. Bus drivers, for instance, can flag if a young person’s pickup location fluctuates, indicating that the family may be in a couch-surfing situation, she said.

The superintendent of the St. Johnsbury School District did not respond to requests for comment.

Over 2,750 Vermonters are experiencing homelessness according to a point-in-time tally from early 2022 — more than double the state’s pre-pandemic level. The state’s overall percentage increase in homelessness from 2020 to 2022 was the highest in the nation. 

Much of that rise, advocates say, may be residents who once fell under the radar while doubled-up with relatives but were forced to seek independent shelter because of families’ COVID concerns.

“We started to see more people who had no place to go,” said Shattuck, the Rural Edge director.

In response, state lawmakers have approved major investments to add more affordable housing to the market. Vermont built 800 new low-cost apartments in 2022 and has another 800 currently under construction, Gov. Phil Scott said in his January State of the State address. He said the state helped 1,300 families transition out of homelessness last year.

“Housing is having its moment in Vermont,” Shattuck said.

The Vermont state capitol building in Montpelier. (Asher Lehrer-Small)

Chery, for his part, is seeking to address the issue from another angle. After relying on the transitional housing offered by Northeast Kingdom Youth Services as an 18-year old, he now serves as a case manager for the program. 

Having lived in the shared apartment building, the 23-year-old understands the challenges the young people he works with are facing — and he knows what it can mean for their schooling.

“There’s this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality about education,” he said. But for housing insecure youth, “getting to a place where you’re stable enough that you can fully commit to education, that’s another whole journey.”

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