Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As pandemic-era motel program nears April cliff, Vermont lawmakers question lack of plan

A motel with two stories and a fence and railing on the upper level
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public File
The Colonnade Inn in Lyndonville, pictured here on June 20, 2023, was one of many hotels and motels across the state that participated in Vermont's pandemic-era emergency housing program.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

On April 1, hundreds of Vermonters are set to lose their shelter through the expanded pandemic-era version of the state's motel housing program.

As officials with the Agency of Human Services prepared to ramp down the program, they're fleshing out plans to stand up five new emergency shelters by spring. But a lot of key decisions remain up in the air as the deadline creeps up.

Mitch Wertlieb sat down with Report for America corps member Carly Berlin. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: First of all, bring us up to speed on all of this. Why are so many people expected to lose their shelter on April 1?

Carly Berlin: So during the pandemic, the state greatly expanded the eligibility for sheltering people in a separate pre-COVID motel housing program — basically trying to get anyone who was unhoused a private room to stay in.

And last year, the federal funding to keep doing that ran out. The state ended up kicking out several hundred people from motels and hotels last June. But lawmakers then struck an eleventh hour deal to extend the COVID-era version of the motel program for a specific subset of people qualifying as highly vulnerable. So older Vermonters, family with kids, people with disabilities. And that extension runs until this April, which is now just a few months away.

Officials have been tasked with finding housing for people in this cohort. But that effort has only been moderately successful. There were about 1,300 households in this highly vulnerable subset on July 1, and now roughly half of them are still in the program.

More from Vermont Public: Key questions loom as Vermont prepares to ramp down pandemic-era motel program

Mitch Wertlieb: Well given that, what do we know about what officials are now planning for the spring?

Carly Berlin: So officials are hoping to stand up temporary emergency shelters in five places that are currently serving the largest number of households through the program. So those are Rutland, Burlington, central Vermont, Bennington and Brattleboro. But exactly where these shelters will go is a big open question.

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Chris Winters told lawmakers recently that finding locations for homeless shelters can be contentious, and finding people to run them right now is hard too.
Chris Winters: The community providers that we already have are very much stretched thin. We have trouble locating buildings, we have trouble site-ing these kinds of facilities. There's a lot of you know NIMBYism and other things that happen when you're trying to do this.

Carly Berlin: The department is seeking $4 million in its mid-year budget request to stand up these shelters. But it's also important to note these will be temporary — they'll only be stood up from April 1 to July 1 as a sort of transitional period. And perhaps most importantly, the state doesn't expect that they'll be able to set up enough shelter space for everyone in need.

Winters told me the state anticipates that between 500 and 600 households will still be in the motel housing program come April 1. That translates to an even larger number of individual people, of course, but the state is only expecting to have maybe 200 to 250 beds between all five sites as a goal. So there's a pretty significant gap there.

Here's Commissioner Winter speaking before lawmakers again.

Chris Winters: There will be some very difficult decisions around prioritizing who should continue to be sheltered at that time.

Mitch Wertlieb: How are people responding to this, lawmakers and advocates — who I imagine are not pleased?

Carly Berlin: I am hearing a good bit of criticism for the administration's lack of a firm plan on what will happen on April 1. Here's Rep. Kathleen James, a Democrat from Manchester responding to Commissioner Winters:

Kathleen James: I'm having a bad déjà vu feeling because I am hearing you talk about her choices and people who are going to be unhoused and all the barriers. And I feel as though the administration has had ample time to get a plan in place. And to figure it out.

Carly Berlin: Other lawmakers are pressing on what exactly the shelters will look like, you know, will they be what's called a congregate setting, with lots of beds in one space?

The administration has said these won't be "gymnasium floors with cots," and Winter has told me in an interview they could be semi-congregate spaces, like dorms or individual mobile units where people could have their own space.

But we still don't really know exactly what the setup will be. There's a solid group of advocates for unhoused people pointing to research showing that non-congregate options like the motel-based approach Vermont and many other states took during COVID actually provides better health and economic outcomes for unhoused people. And they don't want to see people packed into big congregate shelters, which they say can be retraumatizing for people who are already experiencing maybe one of the worst moments of their lives.

Mitch Wertlieb: So it seems like there is a lot to be figured out here in just three months time. Carly, we're already seeing a lot more people living outside in really precarious situations and conditions across Vermont right now. Could that situation then get worse this spring?

Carly Berlin: I'm hearing a lot of concern from advocates and service providers that we could see a big increase in the number of people living unsheltered on the streets, in cars, places not meant for human habitation. Officials in Chittenden County have reported a huge spike in the number of people living outside since the first wave of people were evicted from the motel program this past summer.

Peter Elwell, interim executive director of the Groundworks Collaborative, a homeless services provider in Brattleboro, told me if everyone sheltering in motels there were kicked out at once:
Peter Elwell: We would go from you know, maybe something like 30 to over 100 people, literally overnight, that would be unsheltered homeless. With little or no capacity to serve them other than providing tents and sleeping bags.

Carly Berlin: And this April 1 cohort we've been talking about, they won't be the only people exiting hotels this spring. People currently staying just during the harsh winter months under a separate program will have to leave on March 15.

You know, I want to note, too, across Vermont, there are a fair number of new seasonal and year-round shelter beds in the development pipeline right now. But even when all of them come online, Vermont will have shelter spots numbering in the hundreds and thousands of unhoused people.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
Latest Stories