Motel residents plead with lawmakers to extend emergency housing program
The low-income Vermonters who are about to lose their government-subsidized motel rooms are making a last-ditch appeal to lawmakers to extend the emergency housing program.
At a press conference outside the Statehouse on Tuesday, Rebecca Duprey, a single mother of two boys, said her room at the Hilltop Inn in Berlin has been a refuge for her family.
Duprey said she lost housing after leaving an abusive partner. She and her sons had been living out of her car at a park-and-ride in Chittenden County before gaining eligibility for the motel housing program.
Duprey and her children are among the more than 2,000 Vermonters slated to lose their motel rooms when the federally funded emergency housing program winds down this summer. And she said she and her sons will likely be forced to sleep in her car again if they’re kicked out.
“If we lose this shelter, all will be lost and everything will have been for nothing,” Duprey said. “It unshelters me, my boys, carelessly, as if we don’t matter. Our lives are in the hands of these legislators.”
“Many solutions are needed, and none of those solutions are kicking disabled people out on the streets.”Sarah Launderville, Vermont Center for Independent Living
Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic leaders in the Legislature say the state can’t afford to keep the program going, because it needs to invest its limited resources in more permanent housing solutions.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth said stories like Duprey’s make the scaling down of the motel housing program “a tragic situation all around." But he said maintaining the motel program as it’s existed over the past three years would cost the state an estimated $150 million annually.
“That $150 million has to come from somewhere,” Baruth said. “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.”
Cost estimates to continue the program vary. Scott said operational costs for the motel program currently run at $18 million to $20 million a month. The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office told lawmakers it would cost about $68 million to keep the program in place as is until next March.
Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, said it’s irresponsible for lawmakers to pit funding for new affordable housing against emergency shelter for vulnerable Vermonters. And she said the decision to wind down the program could have grave consequences for motel residents, more than two-thirds of whom report having a disability.
“We must stop the old thinking of it’s one choice or another,” Launderville said Tuesday. “Many solutions are needed, and none of those solutions are kicking disabled people out on the streets.”
The state budget approved by the Senate recently would triple base funding for the state motel housing program.
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.
Chittenden County Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky and Windham County Sen. Nadir Hashim introduced an amendment last week that would have increased funding for the motels housing program by $20 million next year.
Vyhovsky is a clinical social worker who’s worked with unhoused families.
“And there is no instance I’ve ever seen where being put out on the street is not destabilizing, traumatizing and doesn’t make it next to impossible to hold a job, engage with medical treatment, all the things that allow for a dignified life,” Vyhovsky told Vermont Public.
Vyhovsky, however, said it’s become increasingly evident that there isn’t an appetite in Montpelier to meaningfully increase funding for the motel program.
“I think unfortunately it’s unlikely the program gets extended, and so then I think it’s really thinking strategically and with imagination about what we can get moving quickly to keep people from being unhoused,” she said. “It really for me is just untenable that we may putting thousands of people on the street in a couple weeks.”
Hashim has similarly dim prospects for a last-minute change of heart in the Legislature over the need for more funding.
“At this point I’m not sure that there is additional steps that I would be able to take to add that money,” Hashim said.
Cheri Rossi, a 62-year-old woman with a permanent disability who’s been living at the Hilltop Inn since last March, is hoping stories like hers might capture the attention of lawmakers.
Rossi said she relies on personal care attendants and medical equipment to live. She said she’ll be on the street come July 1, if the program winds down as scheduled.
“I think legislators need to know that I will be on the street. I will be without a caregiver, and I will die quickly or I will die slowly. That is what’s going to happen to me personally. It’s going to happen to a lot of people,” Rossi said.
Washington County State’s Attorney Michelle Donnelly said motel residents aren’t the only people that will directly experience the effects of an increase in homelessness.
“Suddenly unhousing 1,800 families without a plan is 100% going to have an effect on the criminal justice system,” she said.
Reducing spending on motel rooms, according to Donnelly, will put pressure on municipal budgets, local nonprofits, hospitals, schools, courthouses and police agencies.
"Destabilizing those families and unhousing them is going to make them more vulnerable to victimization,” Donnelly said.
She said the mass displacement of people will also lead to “crimes of desperation.”
Brenda Siegel, a housing advocate and Democratic gubernatorial nominee during the 2022 election cycle, has been meeting with motel residents and compiling their stories. She delivered a letter Tuesday, signed by about 250 motel residents, to Baruth and House Speaker Jill Krowinski.
It read, in part, “we need you to take action to keep us safe.”
“Please don’t just turn your backs on us,” the letter said. “We are your neighbors and community members and we deserve our lives to be valued as much as your own.”
Siegel said she’s personally talked to motel residents that use wheelchairs, are amputees, veterans, mothers and children. If lawmakers don’t increase funding for the motel program before the legislative session ends, Siegel said, they will have been complicit in “a state-sponsored unsheltering of nearly 3,000 people.”
“There is still time to do something different. There is still time to keep people sheltered,” Siegel said. “We have to do better than this budget currently does. If this session closes with this budget, the state will have created a preventable humanitarian crisis.”
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