Evictions are set to begin for people in Vermont's motel housing program
Last Friday, outreach worker Todd Brown stood outside Feeding Chittenden, a food shelf in Burlington’s Old North End. His coworkers were serving up a hot meal inside, and the place was busy.
"We've got, right now, about 150 people coming in here every morning. About half of them are staying in hotels, in the emergency shelter [program]," he said.
Brown works for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, CVOEO. Over the past few weeks, he’s been trying to help people living at local motels come up with a plan for life after today. For many, their next and last resort is to set up a tent and camp.
"I've given out a bunch of tents this week. And people are starting to ask for, like, cooking supplies, and just things you would need if you're planning to be outside for a while. Things that we don't normally get asked for so frequently," Brown said. "We're just trying to like be helpful as much as we can."
For the past three years, federal and state dollars paid for motel rooms for Vermonters with nowhere else to go. Close to 3,000 unhoused Vermonters are currently in the program.
This year lawmakers decided to stop funding the program, which was always designed to be temporary. Around 760 households are set to lose their eligibility today. Another 1,050 households will be eligible for eviction later this summer.
Meanwhile, housing advocates across the state are struggling to identify open shelter beds, affordable rentals, or places for people to camp.
‘All of us feel a little helpless’
In Chittenden County, around 200 people will be ousted from motels in this first round. Many more are expected to trickle in from other parts of the state to take advantage of Burlington’s social services, many of which are already at capacity.
"It’s going to get harder, because people are likely going to bounce around more, room to room, night to night," said Jonathan Farrell, the executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS). "It’s going to be harder to track people down."
COTS runs a number of services for people experiencing homelessness, including a center in Burlington where people can grab a hot meal, do laundry, or talk to a social worker. Farrell's expecting to see a dramatic uptick in visitors to the center this month. He's also preparing to see more people living on the streets.
"I think it makes all of us feel a little helpless," he said. "Camping is a last resort in our eyes. It's not a stable situation. But we also recognize that it's going to happen when people don't have anywhere else to turn."
Encampments are often not safe or sanitary, as evidenced by the Sears Lane encampment in Burlington. Tents there were cleared in late 2021 after concerns about public health and crime. But with the motel program winding down and the state mired in a severe affordable housing shortage, city leaders and advocates expect encampments to become a more common sight.
Members of Burlington’s City Council have been debating whether to loosen the city's camping policies to allow people to camp on public lands when shelters are full. But many outreach workers say a change like that won't make much of a difference.
"I don't think telling them there's a law that they can't camp in town will stop people who need a place to sleep from camping in town," said Todd Brown with CVOEO.
State leaders’ role and response
In other parts of the state, camping isn’t even an option. In Barre, city manager Nicolas Storellicastro said they're hamstrung by the city’s geography.
"We’re four square miles. If we had tracts of lands, property, that were good for camping, we would’ve already built housing on it," Storellicastro said.
There’s talk of turning Barre’s auditorium or another facility into a temporary shelter, but Storellicastro said the city is much too understaffed to pull off that type of lift. City officials have even suggested that the state make campsites at state parks available for people experiencing homelessness.
"If camping’s going to be part of the state's policy for this, we need them to be partners in that," Storellicastro said. "Maybe the state can look at its season pass policy or its camping policy, if that's its official response to this crisis."
The director of state parks, Nate McKeen, told Vermont Public that designating camping permits for people experiencing homelessness wasn't on the table at this time.
One way to open up more funds for emergency housing would be for Gov. Phil Scott to declare a state of emergency. At a press conference Wednesday, Scott said that option remains on the table.
"But at this point in time, I think we need to get through June 1, get into the middle of the month, and see where we’re at at that point," he said. When asked by a reporter what exactly he'd need to see to call for a state of emergency, Scott said, "we'll know it when we see it."
The motel housing program remains a major sticking point in the state budget. Gov. Scott recently vetoed the budget for being too bloated, even though funding for the motel program didn’t make it in. Lawmakers will reconvene in Montpelier in a few weeks to consider a budget veto override. And last week, Scott announced that some people in the motel program would be granted a final 28-day extension.
"We are doing the best we can, but I don’t think people should be surprised to see that some choose to maybe set up a tent somewhere or using other alternatives," he said.
That’s the reality that Rick DeAngelis is preparing for right now. He’s the executive director of Good Samaritan Haven, which runs shelters in Berlin, Barre City and Barre Town. The organization recently set up an emergency support fund to help people buy tents, sleeping bags and other supplies.
But what that fund can’t fix is morale — for the people who are soon to be without a room of their own, and the people like him who support them.
"I'm feeling pretty tired personally, and now in particular, it's almost hard to believe," DeAngelis said.
The one bright spot he does see is a new level of awareness about homelessness in Vermont. Sometimes, he said, a community needs to experience a crisis in order to turn a corner.
"So I'm hoping that this is one of those turning points," he said. "I don't know, maybe that's just looking at it through rose colored glasses or something. But I'm hopeful of that."
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