Veto session becomes referendum on future of Vermont's motel housing program
Vermont lawmakers will convene in Montpelier next week for their veto session, but overriding the seven fresh vetoes by Gov. Phil Scott won’t be the only item on their legislative agenda.
Democrats in the House and Senate are drafting a supplementary funding bill that would extend a motel housing program that’s provided shelter for about 1,800 households over the past three years.
Leadership in both chambers said last month that the state budget contained sufficient resources for a humane transition from the federally funded pandemic-era housing program. After the first phase of motel exits earlier this month, however, Caledonia County Sen. Jane Kitchel said it’s become clear that the Scott administration doesn’t have the capacity to ensure transitional housing options for the low-income Vermonters that need it.
“And so it’s with the benefit of that knowledge that I think we are all coming to agreement that this transition is going to need more time,” said Kitchel, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Appropriations. “And I think that’s what people are concerned about. You don’t want to have someone who is wheelchair bound or with an oxygen tank on the street.”
“Is it as bad as we thought? Yes it’s as bad as we thought. People are being exited with no plans. People are being exited with no assessment, and there isn’t even a legal place that most of them can go.”Westminster Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun
The move represents a remarkable turnabout from the position held by Democratic leaders as recently as late May. And it follows a wave of criticism from left-leaning lawmakers and housing advocates who have long said that an abrupt ramp down of the motel program would result in a “humanitarian crisis.”
Westminster Rep. Michell Bos-Lun is part of a coalition of Democrats and Progressives in the House that has been calling on House and Senate leadership to boost funding for the program.
Bos-Lun, a Democrat, said she was “very encouraged” by the latest push to extend the motel housing program. And she said the drafting of the new legislation comes at a critical juncture.
“Is it as bad as we thought? Yes it’s as bad as we thought,” Bos-Lun said. “People are being exited with no plans. People are being exited with no assessment, and there isn’t even a legal place that most of them can go.”
Members of that coalition have won significant leverage in the debate over the future of the motel housing program. That’s because House Speaker Jill Krowinski will need at least some of their votes in order to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the state budget. And Bos-Lun and others have said they won’t take a vote to enact that budget until they’re assured that resources are in place for a “just transition” the motel housing program.
“What I know is exiting people without a place to go is wrong for people, and it’s wrong for communities. We just can’t do that,” Bos-Lun said. “We need to find a way to provide a more compassionate and just transition out of the … housing program.”
Bos-Lun said it’s too early to say whether the supplementary funding bill being drafted by leadership will meet that requirement. In order to win her support for the budget, she said, lawmakers will have to not only extend motel stays for the 1,200 or so Vermonters that are left in the program, but retroactively restore eligibility for some residents who were already exited.
The initial rounds of motel exits, on June 1 and June 15, weren’t supposed to include people with disabilities. Bos-Lun said she knows firsthand that people with severe medical needs were in fact forced to leave.
At a press conference this week, housing advocate Brenda Siegel said she’s interviewed 90 people who were set to lose motel housing on June 15. She said at least nine had a medical device that required electricity, or relied on medications that needed to be refrigerated.
None of the 90 individuals she interviewed, she said, had housing to enter into after they lose their motel rooms.
“They have reported they will be living outside. 100%. That is not the data we have heard from the state,” she said.
Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, said her organization is receiving calls from people with disabilities who have either already been exited, or will be soon.
“This is a crisis. The choice has been made to end the public health emergency without a solid understanding or a reasonable vision other than putting those people on the street,” Launderville said. “This is the time for strong leaders to own up that we are failing people right now, and we need to fund sheltering needs.”
“Absolutely that funding package is needed, and I hope it comes through. We’re counting on it already.”Rick D'Angelis, Good Samaritan Haven
The coalition of Democrats and Progressives are also calling for the state to negotiate lower rates with motel and hotel owners, and for a public lands camping policy to ensure that unhoused Vermonters have a safe, legal place to live if they do end up living outside.
The Scott administration has already announced a significant postponement of motel exits. Secretary of Human Services Jenney Samuelson said Thursday that of the approximately 1,200 household originally scheduled to lose motel housing on July 1, more than half will now be able to stay through the end of September.
Rick D’Angelis, executive director of the Good Samarian Haven in Washington County, said the motel extensions are a welcome development.
“It’s a still a problem. It’s still something we should be concerned about and we need to prepare for and be worried about,” D’Angelis said. “But it’s a difficult kind of problem that we can prepare for in different ways.”
D’Angelis said local municipalities have risen to the challenge in recent weeks. And he said Good Samaritan Haven is already working on building out a network of shelters in advance of more widespread motel exits. He said the organization is also negotiating new leases for extended motel stays itself.
Securing the capital needed to execute those plans, he said, hinges on the funding bill lawmakers are working on now.
“Absolutely that funding package is needed, and I hope it comes through” D’Angelis said. “We’re counting on it already.”
In addition to overriding the state budget and passing the supplementary funding package, lawmakers will also take up six other veto overrides next week.
The bill, funded by a payroll tax on businesses and their employees, would inject an additional $120 million annually into the state’s struggling child care system.
A bill that makes updates to the Office of Professional Regulation at the Secretary of State’s Office includes fee increases that the governor opposed.
Lawmakers want to make it illegal for police to use deceptive or coercive tactics in custodial interrogations with juveniles and young adults.
Lawmakers want to double wages, and provide access to a state-sponsored health plan, for future members of the General Assembly.
Brattleboro charter change
Lawmakers want to clear the way for a voter-approved charter change in Brattleboro that would allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in municipal elections and run for local office.
Burlington charter change
Lawmakers will try to enact a voter-approved charter change in Burlington that would allow non-U.S. citizens who have legal residence in Vermont to vote in municipal and school elections.
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