Advocates brace for humanitarian crisis when over 2,000 Vermonters lose emergency housing
Advocates are warning of a “potential catastrophe” as the state prepares to wind down a motel housing program that will result in the displacement of more than 2,000 Vermonters living in poverty.
The federally funded emergency housing program that’s provided motel and hotel rooms for thousands of unhoused Vermonters since the beginning of the pandemic is set to scale back dramatically: Of the 1,800 households currently living in motels right now, about 1,600 will be forced to exit by July 1, according to state officials.
As that deadline nears, teams at the Vermont Department for Children and Families are working with motel residents to secure transitional housing and other services. Katarina Lisaius, senior advisor to the commissioner of DCF, said the path for many of their clients remains uncertain.
“And we are finding people don’t have, you know, their plan for what’s coming next. So it’s how do we connect them to other services that will help get them there,” Lisiaus said. “It does mean that some people won’t have a plan when the stepdown occurs.”
'It is keeping people alive'
Cheri Rossi, who’s been living at the Hilltop Inn in Berlin since March of 2022, is among the motel residents who don’t have new living arrangements lined up.
Rossi, who grew up in Montpelier, told Vermont Public that she had to end her career as a paralegal when she became permanently disabled in 2007. For more than a decade, she said, she managed to piece together admittedly “unconventional” living arrangements with the $800 a month she receives in Social Security Disability Insurance payments.
“I don’t know how I did it for 10 years, but I did,” Rossi said in an interview at the Hilltop this week.
A health inspector eventually deemed her Montpelier apartment unfit for human occupancy. And after losing her housing, Rossi secured eligibility for a room at the Hilltop last March.
She said she’s been informed that she’ll have to leave on June 30.
"Being on the street, it would basically be a slow death sentence for me.”Cheri Rossi, resident at the Hilltop Inn in Berlin
“It’s a really difficult way to live,” Rossi said of motel living. “But it is keeping people alive that would not be alive if not for this program.”
Rossi, 62, can’t drive and doesn’t have a car. She has a friend in New Mexico who said she might be able to live on her couch, but with her mobility issues and financial limitations, Rossi said it’s hard to know how that might work.
As of now, Rossi said, she has nowhere to go when she has to leave the motel.
“And I need medical equipment and safety equipment that requires electricity, so being on the street, it would basically be a slow death sentence for me,” Rossi said.
Vermont Public has talked to more than a dozen motel residents in recent weeks, most of whom wanted to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing job prospects or future housing opportunities.
They include a couple in their 30s who relapsed after their 3-month-old daughter died of sudden infant death syndrome, a woman in her 70s with multiple physical disabilities and dementia, and a man in his 50s who experienced homelessness for eight years before moving into a motel last year.
About a third of the people currently living in motels qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance, and 64% of self-report as having a disability, according to state data; 266 of the motel and hotel residents are children.
“I am very grateful for a roof over my head, but this is not the Taj Mahal,” Rossi said. “Nobody is trying to abuse the system. This is the bare minimum of what people need to survive. All human beings deserve to be housed — that’s my personal opinion.”
Tents, sleeping bags and a ride
Exactly how many motel residents will end up on the streets or in the woods is unclear. Vermont Public asked the Agency of Human Services how many people currently living in motels have lined up housing in advance of their exit.
Officials there said they “inquired the subject-matter experts on this topic and were advised that this data is not available.”
Rick D’Angelis, executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven, which serves people without housing in Washington County, said the situation is going to be bad.
“The crisis that we already have of people being unsheltered and insecurely housed is about to get a whole lot worse,” D’Angelis said. “We’ve come close to the cliff previously, but this time it looks like it’s for real.”
Most of the 350 or so people experiencing homelessness in Washington County are sheltered in motels, according to D’Angelis. And as their July 1 eviction dates near, he said Good Samaritan has launched a fundraising campaign to supply outgoing residents with basic camping supplies.
“We’re helping out with transportation — if they have somewhere else to go, to a family or friend somewhere, we’ll pay for the cost of getting there. We’re also helping with emergency supplies, like tents and sleeping bags, water, food, medical supplies, things like that,” D’Angelis said. “Those aren’t great solutions. I wish we could say we have something figured out. But that’s kind of the state of affairs.”
The scaling back of the motel housing program comes as other pandemic-era supports, such as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, also expire. Motel residents are also venturing into a housing market that has, by some estimates, the second-lowest rental vacancy rate in the nation.
That many people in motels will end up living outside is an inevitability, according to Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College and interim executive director of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.
Sosin told lawmakers last week that “forced displacement of people experiencing homelessness” will lead to a “broad range of adverse health outcomes.” And she said a long body of research suggests many will face a “significantly increased risk of death.”
“We know that homelessness is fundamentally a housing problem, not a problem of unhousable people,” Sosin said in an interview with Vermont Public. “And we have evidence that the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness can be successfully housed with positive housing retention rates, health benefits, and decreases in costs to communities.”
Cost analysis at the Statehouse
The Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition is calling on elected officials to maintain the emergency housing program, or a version thereof, until the state has constructed housing units for motel residents to occupy when they leave.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic lawmakers say Vermont can’t afford to backfill the federally funded program with state money. Sosin argues that by ending the program, the state is simply shifting those costs to local communities.
A 2017 study by the National Coalition on Homelessness pegged the annual cost to taxpayers for each person living in homelessness at about $35,000.
“I don’t know where people are going to go if the doors closed on them on July 1."Waterbury Rep. Tom Stevens
“Eliminating funding for homelessness doesn’t eliminate the cost of homelessness,” Sosin said. “It simply displaces these costs from homelessness budgets to hospitals, our criminal justice system, our schools, and local cities and towns.”
The end of the motel housing program as Vermont has known it over the past three years weighs heavily on the conscience of legislators such as Waterbury Rep. Tom Stevens, a Democrat who chairs the House Committee on General and Housing.
Stevens said the state has made significant strides in recent years, thanks to pandemic-era federal supports that have allowed elected officials to invest more than a quarter-billion dollars in affordable housing initiatives.
Shelter capacity is up, Stevens said, and the state has secured permanent housing for more than 3,000 unhoused Vermonters since the beginning of the pandemic.
Still, Stevens said he’s not in a position to refute the worst-case scenarios that advocates are forecasting as the motel program comes to a halt.
“I think it’s safe to say that that’s the risk we are facing,” Stevens told Vermont Public. “I don’t know where people are going to go if the doors closed on them on July 1 … which is a roundabout way of saying (advocates’) fears will probably be realized.”
The House and Senate have already agreed to approximately triple base funding for the General Assistance budget — that’s the state-run motel housing program that existed before the pandemic.
Officials estimate that’ll be enough to keep 150 households in motel rooms on any given month. The Legislature and the Scott administration are also allocating an additional $18 million in one-time money to ramp motel capacity back up when cold weather returns next winter.
Those funds, however, will do little to help the 1,600 people scheduled to lose their motel eligibility soon.
“The fact that it will show itself as a crisis in July is not my preferred way of dealing with it, but we’re going to have to,” Stevens said. “And hopefully this will force us to start working on the system, because it’s not just housing, it’s not just four walls, it is services.”
There’s an appetite among some legislators — Stevens among them — to put more money toward motel housing. But not the critical mass of support, it appears, to substantially increase spending: The Senate Appropriations Committee shot down a proposed amendment this week that would have appropriated about $38 million in next year’s budget to reduce the numbers of motel evictions in July.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth called it “a tragic situation all around.” But he said maintaining the motel program as it exists now would cost the state an estimated $150 million. And he said if lawmakers produce the funds needed to keep it going, then they effectively sacrifice the longer-term housing solutions needed to end homelessness permanently.
“That $150 million has to come from somewhere,” said Baruth, a Democrat/Progressive. “And the easiest place for it to come from is the money we’re pouring into permanent housing and more permanent shelters. So it’s ironic, but if we were to spend that money on the motel program, we wouldn’t solve the problem.”
Cheri Rossi doesn’t understand why the motel program has to cost so much money. A recent investigation by VTDigger found the state is paying some motels as much as $8,000 per month per resident.
“When it gets down to the money talk of, ‘We can’t afford to do this,’ I don’t think Vermont can afford to not do this. I don’t think that ultimately money is going to be saved if this many people are on the streets,” Rossi said. “We’re human beings, many of whom are very aware socially of where they stand in society. It’s a thing where you become invisible. It’s very difficult.”
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