Fears mount as Vermont ponders future of motel housing program
Vermont lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott are again under pressure to extend a motel housing program that’s providing shelter to more than 1,200 low-income households across the state.
Lawmakers approved legislation in June, known as Act 81, that averted a mass unsheltering of motel residents who’d been scheduled to lose eligibility for the program on July 1. The law preserves state-subsidized housing for people with disabilities, families with children and older Vermonters until April 1.
That expiration date is still six months away, but advocates are already signaling concern about lack of alternative housing options for the individuals relying on motel rooms for shelter. They’re also calling for increased support for people that have become newly unhoused since Act 81 went into effect.
“Our social service agencies continue to be exhausted by the level of need they respond to in the community, and lack capacity, staffing and ability to expand or grow new programs at this time,” Sarah Russell, co-chair of the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, told lawmakers last week. “We need the state to take leadership in creation of new shelter capacity to address the historic and unacceptable levels of unsheltered homelessness that we see right now.”
What that shelter looks like, how it’s constructed, and who pays for it are questions lawmakers and the Scott administration have begun tackling in advance of the next legislative session. Waterbury Rep. Theresa Wood, the Democratic chair of the House Committee on Human Services, said the onus is on the Republican governor to deliver a plan for what happens after April 1.
“We need to change what we are doing because doing the same thing the way that we’ve always done it is not going to match the need."Chris Winters, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families
“The promise that I can make to those (current motel residents), and to the housing providers that are trying to help them, is we are going to hold the administration’s feet to the fire,” Wood said.
In the meantime, Wood said the Legislature will look to “modernize” the housing services it provides to residents experiencing homelessness.
“They have needs not only around housing, they have needs around mental health care, around physical care, around care for them as they age and try to age in place,” Wood said.
Wood said the state has a special obligation to the more than 400 children in Vermont experiencing homelessness. Addressing the full scope of need, she said, will require a more substantial investment of tax dollars.
“It’s fair to assume that it will be more than what we have allocated now,” Wood said. “Can I tell you exactly how much that will be? No.”
Chris Winters, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, has told lawmakers that he plans to deliver a more detailed proposal on the future of the motel housing program later this month. But he’s already said the initiative has proven to be an ineffective tool to deliver longer-term housing security.
“We need to change what we are doing because doing the same thing the way that we’ve always done it is not going to match the need,” Winters told lawmakers recently. “We see as many people coming into homelessness now as are exiting, even more.”
Lawmakers and housing advocates share Winters’ concerns about the utility of motels as a long-term housing strategy. But Brenda Siegel, executive director of End Homelessness Vermont, said lack of affordable housing options means that motel rooms are the only viable option in the short term to keep people housed.
“It is all we have available right now, and so that’s what we need to do at this moment,” Siegel told Vermont Public.
Siegel and others are also pressing the Scott administration and the Legislature to revamp eligibility guidelines in ways that would bring more people into the motel housing program.
Kara Casey, who sits on the board of Housing and Homelessness Alliance, said the “narrow definition of disabled” that the state uses now has confined eligibility only to people receiving Social Security Disability Insurance.
“Many people with disabilities do not receive federal benefits, and they cannot apply for those benefits without an address,” Casey said. “It leaves people with physical and mental challenges unhoused and in crisis.”
Bryan Plant, a Bristol resident who formerly lived in a shelter, told lawmakers that they also need to streamline the application process for housing services. He said intrusive and confusing questions buried in the “mountain of paperwork” he had to fill out multiple times in order to pursue a Section 8 housing voucher “nearly broke me.”
“The lack of time frames and communication was problematic, let alone the time it took,” Plant said. “When months go by, it’s easy if you’re dealing with something like depression for doubt, despair and hopelessness to set in. The system has let us down many times. Why would it change now?”
Chloe Collins, executive director of the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, said the countdown to April 1 has already begun at her organization. Ninety-seven of the motel residents currently scheduled to lose housing on that date, she told lawmakers, are children.
“If we held a minute of silence for every child who’s about to lose housing in Bennington in April, we would be sitting here in silence for more than an hour and a half,” she said.
Collins urged lawmakers to rethink the conventional funding streams for the development of affordable housing. The Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless is trying to partner with a private developer on a project that would provide up to 40 units for unhoused residents.
Because federal matching funds are generally only available for mixed-income housing projects, she said, they haven’t been able to secure the $1.2 million in public funding they need to break ground.
“The push for everyone to apply to traditional funding sources ties the hand of innovation,” Collins said. “We are facing the current housing crisis because the current system creates unnecessary challenges that make it impossible for nonprofits and developers to partner in creative ways to address the need.”
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