The dichotomy of Vermont

Recently, I was in a store that sold old books and magazines. A Vermont Life magazine, published in the early 1970's caught my attention. On the cover was a beautiful picture of an early October landscape with a white farmhouse depicted in the background and several Holsteins grazing next to a split-rail fence.

The magazine had other pastoral scenes as well and a panorama of the Green Mountains ablaze in fall foliage. Short stories about potters and glass blowers also graced the magazine. It was Vermont of some 40 years ago.

For decades, Vermont Life as well as other tourist publications have provided a picture of Vermont that is a distant likeness of the Vermont montage we confront each day. What has changed in 40 years?

What has happened since the 70's is not a pretty story. Vermont has changed not in its natural beauty but in its social/cultural infrastructure. A day does not go by when the state's newspapers and TV/radio, describe another unpleasant Vermont news story. Here are just a few.

The illegal drug use epidemic is for many in law enforcement as well as those in the prevention and rehabilitation field, a lost cause. The scope of the problem is well beyond their professional, physical and financial capabilities. No longer can they put "their finger in the dike;" the dike has broken and a cascade of problems has inundated our cities and towns.

The majority of drug users who are in need of rehabilitation assistance are drowning in despair - only a small percentage can be admitted to the few places that can provide help. The Bennington Banner recently noted the unmet need affects 18,000. Building mental health and addiction rehab centers is not a Vermont priority.

For many of the thousands of users their hundred dollar a day habit is satisfied by breaking into homes and businesses at a rate unheard of 40 years ago. Today, most Vermonters are in a lockdown mode.

And if it wasn't enough for our health, social and law enforcement professionals to have to deal with the illegal drug use crisis - they are now confronted with an avalanche of abuse against women and children --an issue that was so rare 40 years ago. What is perplexing about this is that it grew so quickly and in the level of violence. What ever changed the character of the Vermont male in such a short period of time?

The sources that show Vermont's natural beauty and the skills of its artisans would never depict those who live on the streets - there are many. It was recently reported in the Rutland Herald, that at last count, on any given night, there were close to 1,500 homeless persons. Those who are charged with dealing with this catastrophic failure believe the amount of homeless is closer to 3,000.

Tourists visiting our state have no idea that joining them at many of Vermont's motels are hundreds of Vermonters placed in such housing by the state, at an annual cost of $4 million, soon to be reduced to $1.5 million. Tent cities have been proposed to deal with those who will no longer qualify for motel housing.

The anomaly is that this is happening in a state where there are tens of thousands of second homes that are vacant most of the time. It seems that we can provide housing but not so for those most in need.

Vermont Life magazine has done countless stories on how Vermonters have had a tradition of independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness. The readings from Walter Hard, Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Robert Frost bring this to the forefront. What was the cultural change that has taken place since the 1970's - that in 2013, Vermonters by the tens of thousands, those who have not suffered a natural disaster/fire calamity or a significant illness, have become dependent on the state to take care of their basic needs?

The recent announcement of Vermont receiving a $2 million per year Federal grant will be of some help, nevertheless we have fundamental problems that have become more numerous and more difficult. But deal with them we must and a beginning would be this fall, by calling the legislature back into special session and have that body focus solely on the above.

The legislators should not be expected to go it alone; somehow, the phrases - take personal responsibility and unacceptable behavior - must be allowed back into the Vermont dialogue. As enablers we believed such character traits were not important. We have been proven wrong.

We don't need to have two Vermonts - one that we carve out for the tourists while we experience, day after day, the other Vermont.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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