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Facing room shortage, Vermont is turning away people seeking shelter in motels during winter weather

A photo showing candles underneath a fir tree in the foreground with people in coats and hats standing in a circle in the background
Glenn Russell
Ken Russell, executive director of Another Way in Montpelier, speaks at a vigil to remember people who were unhoused and lost their lives last year at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday, January 18, 2024.

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

When temperatures plummet across Vermont, and traditional shelters are full, the state eases eligibility requirements for its motel housing program to get unhoused Vermonters out of the cold and into a room.

But this winter, many motels participating in the program — which acts as a safety net to the safety net — are regularly full, or very nearly so, said Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families’ economic services division, in an interview.

“What we have to do is tell people that they are technically eligible, but we don’t have a room for them and then to call back,” she said.

Currently, the department is turning away around 60 households a day because of lack of space, Gray said. That number could count the same household more than once if they call multiple days in a row, she added.

The department posts expected availability in participating motels and hotels by region daily. As of Thursday, it listed 11 out of 12 regions as having no rooms available or having “extremely limited” capacity, defined as five rooms or fewer.

The state has fewer motel rooms at its disposal this winter compared to last, Gray said. In 2023, it had capacity to serve about 1,800 households through the program; now, a little over 1,600 households are in state-sponsored rooms. (That figure includes people entering under the “adverse weather conditions” policy, people entering under typical eligibility guidelines, as well as those still in motels under the pandemic-era eligibility expansion of the program).

That attrition has come from some motel owners deciding “to no longer work with us,” Gray said. Some rooms have also been taken offline after last year’s flooding, she added.

DCF is looking at building back the program’s capacity, “but our preference is to be building shelter capacity that provides support as well,” Gray said in a follow up email. The state has a number of new or expanded permanent shelter projects in the pipeline, and plans to stand up temporary emergency shelters in five places when the pandemic-era motel program sunsets this spring.

Advocates for unhoused people say they hear from people getting turned away from motels who end up living in precarious situations – or are referred to motels far from their homes.

“People are sometimes sent to other areas of the state, which is not ideal for folks in order to access, you know, the supports that they have in their communities, in order for their children to attend school, for folks to work,” said Kara Casey, director of economic empowerment for the Vermont Network against Domestic and Sexual Violence and a board member of the Housing and Homelessness Alliance of Vermont.

On Thursday afternoon, advocates and service providers bundled up for a memorial on the Statehouse steps for Vermonters who have died while unhoused over the last year. Brenda Siegel, an advocate for unhoused people, emphasized the universal need for shelter – and the difficulty for many to secure it.

“Each and every single call that I get — whether it’s a child, or an aging Vermonter, or someone with a disability, or someone who has had surgery, or someone whose leg was recently amputated — and I can’t find them shelter — all I think is, this person might die here tonight,” Siegel said.

Asked if DCF is concerned about people dying from exposure, Gray said the department “is always concerned about the Vermonters we serve” and that the Agency of Humans Services and partners do open shelters during extreme cold weather.

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

Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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