National advocate of family homelessness: 'We are literally creating chronic homelessness'

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National advocate of family homelessness: 'We are literally creating chronic homelessness'

Wed, 10/30/2019 - 3:50pm -- katie

National advocate of family homelessness addresses COTS annual meeting

Vermont Business Magazine Barbara Duffield, a national advocate on childhood homelessness, spoke Friday at the COTS Annual Meeting & Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast on the nationwide rise of family homelessness and negative impact that is having on children.

Photo: Barbara Duffield, executive director of the SchoolHouse Connection, gives the keynote address at the COTS Annual Meeting & Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, at First Congregational Church of Burlington. Photo by Alison Redlich, for COTS.

Duffield has spent her entire career advocating for children and youth who experience homelessness. She is the executive director of the SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit that works to overcome homelessness through education by partnering with early childhood programs, higher education institutions, and service providers.

Duffield shared how she had once been described by a journalist as “sputtering with indignation” for her passionate advocacy, related to and regarding families and children experiencing homelessness. Her work, though, is informed by national research and data, and motivated by a desire to make seen all the populations facing homelessness.

The debate around policy often stems from differing definitions of homelessness within federal agencies. HUD’s definition is the most narrow, which means families and children are excluded from access to its services.

“Babies have not lived long enough to meet (the HUD) definition of homelessness,” Duffield said.

Instead, since the late 1990s, the bulk of federal funding has focused on the “visibly homeless,” Duffield said. The so-called “chronic homeless” is what people generally think of when they think of “homelessness” – the man on the streets, often in an urban setting, Duffield said.

Despite the emphasis in funding and policy, the number of people who are chronically homeless has not dramatically changed in the past two decades. However, in that same timeframe, the number of families with children has steadily and dramatically increased.

“We are literally creating chronic homelessness when we neglect the well-being of our children and youth in all forms of homelessness.”

Duffield was part of the “Sesame Street” team that introduced the world to Lily, a 7-year-old Muppet who is homeless, last December. The goal, Duffield said, was not to normalize homelessness but to ask: “What does (homelessness) look like from a child’s perspective?” Through that lens, “Sesame Street” has explored the anxiety and instability that children often feel when experiencing homelessness.

The top subpopulations who are at higher risk of homelessness are: youth with less than a high school diploma or GED; single parenting youth; and youth with household income of less than $24,000. We need to “reframe the conversation,” Duffield said. “It’s about poverty, not just housing. All of these factors get in the way.”

“If we don’t go upstream,” Duffield said, “we are never going to solve this issue.”

This is all part of Duffield’s effort to “correct long-standing flaws in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) homeless assistance for children, youth, and families.” She wants ensure that families are eligible for HUD homeless assistance, that communities can set priorities based on local needs, and that data will be improved by unified definitions of “homelessness” across federal agencies.

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Photo: COTS Executive Director Rita Markley (left) presents the Leahy Leadership Award to Richard Williams of Moretown with Pollaidh Major of Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Office at the COTS Annual Meeting & Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, at First Congregational Church of Burlington. Williams, executive director of the Vermont State Housing Authority, was recognized for his tireless efforts to target scarce housing subsidies for those most in need. Photo by Alison Redlich, for COTS.

COTS Annual Meeting Honorees

Also, at the Annual Meeting, COTS recognized community members and businesses for their support this past year. The honorees include:

·         Leahy Leadership Award: Richard Williams of Moretown, the executive director of the Vermont State Housing Authority, was recognized with this advocacy honor for his tireless efforts to target scarce housing subsidies for those most in need. He has advocated for the policies to end family homelessness in Vermont, strongly supported the Vermont Rental Subsidy program, and helped maximize the federal VASH program in Vermont to move homeless veterans move off the streets and into permanent affordable housing. “I have colleagues in many parts of the country who work at places like COTS,” said Rita Markley, COTS executive director, “and I can assure you that it is a very rare thing indeed to have such an open-minded, generous and compassionate leader heading a statewide housing authority.”

·         Innovation & Solutions Award: COTS presented this inaugural honor to the Farmers of Cabot Creamery Co-op, to be accepted by Marie Audet of Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport. Audet’s farm won the first-ever national award for Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability presented by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. By implementing new technologies, Blue Spruce Farm has cut their energy use in half and reduced their greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainability is precisely what prompted the founding of this new award, which was established in recognition of Cabot Creamery Co-op’s enduring gift created by helping launch the innovative solution Cookies for Good a decade ago and in celebration of Cabot’s Centennial this year. Cookies for Good is like a bake sale every day for COTS; 30 percent of all Sugarsnap Catering’s cookie sales support COTS services. Cabot’s initial investment in the development of Cookies for Good has created a sustainable revenue stream for COTS. So, as long as South Burlington’s Sugarsnap continues to bake the Cookies for Good -- and people still keep eating cookies – COTS benefits and the farmers’ intent is honored, even during tough years on the farm.

·         Dee PT Community Partner Award: Staples and the Vermont Lake Monsters for their support of the #172vt Back-to-School Backpack drive. Staples Print and Marketing Sales Manager Heather Gregorek of Charlotte champions the drive at the stores’ South Burlington and Williston locations. Gregorek said she loves this drive “because we can help educate the community on how they can help kids in our area be successful with the school supplies they need. All children deserve it.” Kyle Bostwick of Hinesburg is vice president of the Lake Monsters. For Bostwick, this experience is about making memories for children and families. Both Staples and the Lake Monsters were key in raising awareness about the school supply drive and increasing donations to support children in our community.

·         Samara-Anderson Walk Award: Celia Cuddy of Burlington is one of the University of Vermont’s most highly-rated faculty members, where she has taught social work students for nearly two decades. Through Cuddy, countless numbers of students have learned about COTS and become volunteers through her inspiration.

·         Wilma Rayta Volunteer of the Year: Peg Eddy of Burlington began volunteering with the COTS Finance and Operations Team in 2015. Since that time, she has become a key volunteer through her attention to detail, affinity for organization, warmth and humor.


Visit to learn more about COTS, the event, and honorees.

Founded in 1982, COTS provides emergency shelter, housing, prevention services and outreach to families and individuals who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Last year, COTS served more than 2,300 people (including 766 children); COTS is the service largest provider for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in Vermont.