VT forum to address opiate crisis, but what about welfare crisis?


DRUG ABUSE: Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin is asking the public to participate in an upcoming forum on the state’s opioid-abuse crisis.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

An upcoming forum in Vermont will address opiate abuse, but some residents say the more immediate problem involves the welfare system.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin this week announced the opiate forum, which likely will reflect the governor’s treatment-based approach to addressing addiction.

But Wendy Wilton, treasurer for the city of Rutland, said addicts are diverting state welfare money to fund their addiction.

“The state is one of the biggest aiders and abettors of the drug and addiction problem,” said Wilton, who actively supports the Rutland County Women’s Network and Shelter. “There is a lack of accountability and a lack of financial control on the money that’s given to folks.

“What’s going on in the state of Vermont is they give out general assistance, and much of it is cash. … A lot of folks who are addicted to substances are diverting general assistance — which should be going to rent and other family necessities — to the substance abuse,” Wilton said.

The Governor’s Community Forum on Opiate Addiction, to be held June 16 at the statehouse, seeks input from drug-treatment experts, law enforcement officials, educators and even addicts.

Shumlin used his State-of-the-State address in January to warn of a “full-blown heroin crisis,” and cited a disturbing 770-percent increase in treatment for opiates since 2000. The Legislature responded by approving Shumlin’s request to increase funding for drug treatment by $1.2 million, which will be added to the $8 million allocated to substance abuse.

Wilton said she hopes the forum will address how the state delivers money to people with substance-abuse problems.

“We should not be giving welfare recipients cash … I think you should get money that can pay for food, shelter, clothing, and things you need. But you shouldn’t get cash.”

Wilton, who testified in January before the Senate Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs Committee, urges lawmakers to reform payouts from the Agency of Human Services so assistance goes directly to rent, food and other specific needs, not to recipients as cash.

Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling said addicts have multiple ways of supporting drug habits using taxpayer money.

“Some people work to support their habits, but I don’t think that’s the general rule. There are folks that are on public assistance, and the public assistance is being diverted,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that at certain places you can use an EBT card where the clerk will push a button for you and give you cash back. Or they can buy things that are not supposed to be purchased with an EBT card and then trade those for cash and drugs.”

Schirling said some people fund habits through panhandling or even through “apple picking” — selling stolen Apple laptops and handheld gadgets. Others take advantage of the state’s generous housing subsidies.

“Drug dealers will oftentimes come here and do what’s referred to as ‘couch surfing,’ and they will hook up with folks who are on public assistance. … It’s not really housing fraud, but people are being taken advantage of by dealers and then giving them supplemental income, or trading anything from stolen property to sex to whatever for drugs,” Schirling said.

Some welfare recipients with drug problems misuse the state’s emergency housing program.

“(In) Vermont last year there was some publicity about the hotel voucher system. They tried to do a better job at clamping down on what’s called the ‘cold weather exception,’ where folks call and get a hotel voucher and stay in a state-subsidized hotel as a shelter during cold weather months,” Schirling said. “It’s not uncommon to have drug dealers and other folks who are getting access to those.”

No matter how opioid addiction gets its money, Shumlin said he hopes input from stakeholders across Vermont will help leaders grasp the full range of problems associated with substance abuse.

“We are prepared to bring Vermonters from across the spectrum to the state House to hear about ways communities are pulling together to improve prevention and treatment, as well as law enforcement, to tackle this threat,” he said.

Wilton said she hopes the forum will address how general assistance is distributed and controlled in the state of Vermont.

“There’s a lack of accountability all the way up and down the chain, from the Legislature and the executive all the way down to the addicts.”

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org