Among the Vermonters with whom REJOICE spoke in Summer and Fall 2020, elders–both New Americans and others based in the Rutland area –expressed the most concerns about housing: its affordability and maintenance, as well as its healthiness, in terms of mold, secondhand cigarette and woodsmoke and toxics exposure. Because many elders REJOICE spoke with spent most of their time at home–especially in 2020, before vaccines were available–their housing and its immediate surroundings were the environment that most impacted them. This was also true for those with chronic illness.
Participants also expressed concerns about housing size and fit–the lack of rental housing stock large enough for big, intergenerational families, or small enough for solo elders. Especially during the pandemic, participants said, those mismatches meant overcrowding, one the one hand, and loneliness on the other. The pandemic also lessened access to services linked to housing. New American English as a second language (ESL) speakers said they had depended on being able to walk into a service agency office and speak with someone to resolve issues. But some housing agencies closed their doors for months during the pandemic.
Other participants, like Latinx farmworkers and New Americans (especially renters), had worried about policing and harassment by neighbors, police and immigration, as well as access to safe, dignified, healthy housing, without vermin, and with access to welcoming outdoor space, where children and youth could play without being policed:
“She said…. Her kids are not able to go outside to play without being recorded by her neighbors. They have been recording the kids playing outside and telling them to go back to where they came from and that they don’t belong here. “– Somali Bantu elder, speaking through a second-generation Maay-Maay-speaking interpreter
Participants with dignified housing shared how it enabled them to rest, even when sharing space with people working other shifts, and quarantine if needed. Those who were active in grassroots organizations linked their own relative comfort to a desire for and commitment to systemic change so that others could share those same benefits:
“On another [farm], I went to visit and there was a guy and he lived practically where the cows are, on the top floor they had given him a room, but the room was very small and there was the bathroom… and the bed was about two meters away, and right there we found about 40 cats, I’m not lying. The place was very dirty. Imagine all that cows produce, all the contamination; I think living very close to all those animals is not good for health. And I believe that’s what I was seeing.
The truth is that I did not worry about it then and I said well, they are them and I am fine. But then when I understood–nobody knows, no– because no one knows if, for example, right now we may be fine, but if something happens on this farm and I have to look for work elsewhere and if I end up with some employers who give me a house that’s not decent, then I think I’m going to feel bad. I think that is where we must take seriously what happens to people if they do not have decent housing.”– Latinx Farmworker
Families in all the communities REJOICE spoke with experienced high rates of job loss, and fears of being unable to make rent or mortgage payments loomed large, depending on communities’ rates of homeownership. The Vermont Department of Health program to provide grocery delivery and hotel accommodation for people quarantining with Covid–or for elders quarantining to avoid it–was appreciated and effective.
Summary compiled by: Dr. Susannah McCandless, Center for Whole Communities REJOICE 2021