The Importance of Seeing

Vermont is known for its bucolic landscapes, quaint villages, and maple syrup. To many, it is surprising to learn that there is another side to the Green Mountain State—one where people are struggling to make ends meet, living perilously close to the edge, and even experiencing homelessness.

Of course, Vermont is not unique in this way. Homelessness is a reality faced by more than half a million people throughout the United States. In some areas, homelessness is easily identified by the presence of tent encampments and people sleeping on the street. In places like Vermont, however, it tends to be less visible, hidden away from public view.

The root causes of homelessness are numerous and systemic. Among them is the gross inequality of wealth in our country, wherein the top 10% of Americans own 77% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% own a mere 1%. Another is trauma experienced in childhood or as an adult, which often leads to conditions that make it very difficult to navigate the challenges of daily life. Ironically, the very systems designed to support people experiencing homelessness often exacerbate the problem, creating confusion and leading to prolonged periods of intense, complex struggles for those who need the exact opposite. 

Once a community with little visible homelessness, Brattleboro has experienced a shift over the past few years. Throughout the summer months, when the seasonal emergency shelter closes its doors, tent encampments appear in the downtown area. However, contrary to perception, the number of people experiencing homelessness in and around Brattleboro has actually decreased recently. The annual point-in-time count of individuals experiencing homelessness in Windham County in January 2019 was 98, down from 112 a year earlier, the first decrease recorded in the state of Vermont in nine years.

That is because new approaches to the problem of homelessness are proving to be successful at getting people into housing and, more importantly, keeping them there. These include Housing First, Permanent Supported Housing, and Rapid Re-Housing—approaches that prioritize getting people into housing first and then providing voluntary support services to help them stay there.

This sounds simple enough, but it represents a dramatic shift away from the approach taken by service providers for years, which unrealistically required people to solve all their housing-related challenges—for example, securing gainful employment or overcoming addiction—before they could receive critical assistance with housing.

Consider the catch-22 of being expected to apply and interview for jobs while living on the street or in one’s car, without reliable access to a computer, a shower, or a place to get a decent night’s sleep. Such a system seems designed to fail, and indeed when one made a single misstep, they would go to the back of the line and start the entire process over again—still without housing.

When we get people into housing first, thereby eliminating the chaos, stress, and danger of living on the streets or in temporary shelters, all the other frequently associated challenges—job insecurity, substance abuse, poor mental and physical health, to name a few—become exponentially easier to address. 

This is not a mystery. We know what we need to do to end homelessness. What is lacking is the will to do it. And that stems in part from our ongoing failure to see people experiencing homelessness as our fellow human beings, our neighbors. In fact, we go out of our way not to see them at all. We shoo them off stoops, lock them out of bathrooms, and avert our eyes as we hurry past people sleeping on benches or in the sidewalk. As long as we continue to view people as less than, funding and advocacy will never be enough to ensure that everyone has safe and decent housing.

That is why an exhibition like this one is so important. Steven Kinder’s portraits compel us to stop and see people we might otherwise overlook—and to see them as dignified human beings deserving of our compassion and respect. Once we do that, it is not hard to summon the will to do whatever it takes to insure that everyone in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world has a place to call home.

The preceding essay was written in January 2020 by Groundworks Collaborative to accompany the exhibition Steven Kinder: 552,830.