The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may have abated in some areas, but Vermont children continue to experience a growing impact on mental health and homelessness.
Trends in homelessness and mental health have alarmed those compiling data for the 2022 “State of Vermont’s Children” report from Building Bright Futures, which serves as the state’s early childhood advisory council.
Some data was specific to 2022, and others compared recent readings to pre-pandemic readings to understand the effects of the public health emergency on Vermont families and children.
Sharp increase in mental health problems in preschool and elementary age
Between 2018 and 2021, Vermont experienced a 60 percent increase in children ages 3 to 8 with mental, emotional, or behavioral health problems. These conditions may have presented as anxiety, depression, or behavior and conduct problems.
Among all young people in this age group, 8.7% needed services in 2018, compared to 13.8% through the end of the 2020-2021 school year. The nation maintained a figure of 8% between 2016 and 2021, making Vermont’s stats all the more startling.
Dora Levinson, director of research and data for Building Bright Futures, said in a report briefing that there is ample anecdotal evidence showing more children are requiring mental health services than ever before. The acuteness of their needs is also increasing.
Additional data in the report showed a link between areas where fewer children received routine mental health services and an increase in the number of calls for crisis care. Levinson also said preventive care could go a long way to helping, however, federal programs like Medicaid and the Mental Health Services Block Grant only pay for services where a diagnosis has been established.
“Lack of federal funding for upstream preventive and preventive services is hampering Vermont’s ability to reverse the welfare curve,” Levinson said.
Vermont currently has the lowest number of out-of-home care beds it has had in more than two decades, the report said, so many children end up in emergency departments. Of the 1,500 children who received emergency mental health services in 2019, 16% had to wait at least two days before being placed.
“We are at a critical time in the early childhood mental health public health emergency. A time that will have long-term consequences based on our action or inaction,” Levinson said.
Dramatic increase in homeless children
More Vermont children don’t have a stable place to rest their heads at night, the report showed. A January 2022 point-in-time measurement showed a 130% increase in homeless households that included children, compared to before the pandemic.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homelessness Act defines homelessness as the lack of adequate, fixed overnight residence, which includes sharing temporary accommodations with others and staying somewhere not designed for regular sleeping accommodations.
During the 2019-2020 school year, around 250 students under the age of 9 were experiencing housing precariousness, but by the 2021-2022 school year the number had risen to around 400.
“The trauma of any period of even short-term homelessness can have a major effect on future development,” Levinson said, adding that these children experience higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems, as well as immediate and long-term health problems. .
Issues contributing to the rise in homelessness among Vermont households, the report concluded, were a lack of housing and a disparity between wages earned and the cost of living.
Rental vacancies were at 2.4% in 2021, the lowest rate in the country, according to the report. Additionally, homeowner vacancy rates in 2021 were at 0.6%, leaving many families without sufficient available housing options. The healthy rental and vacant homeownership rates are about 8% and 2%, respectively.
What could be done?Vermont’s emergency housing is facing a crisis point. Here is the state plan.
A family of four with two working adults in Vermont is expected to earn $107,960 in 2022 to meet the family’s most basic needs, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator. However, the median wage earned by a family of four — at $90,556 — means that many fall short of that threshold.
The Building Bright Future report states that at least 32% of households spend more than 30% of their monthly budget on housing alone, and for renters that rate was even higher at 50% of households.
“Finding any rental let alone an affordable and desirable rental can be extremely challenging for families,” Levinson said. Low homeowner vacancy rates and rising interest rates have made home ownership out of reach for many families, he said.
Inflation also contributed to Vermont households having less cash available at the end of the month. Between January 2021 and September 2022, Vermont households paid, on average, 11 percent more for goods, housing, transportation and energy, Levinson said.
Contact the reporter April Barton A [email protected] or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.