Key House panel advances plan to extend motel program through June
This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
A key House panel has voted to give a temporary reprieve to hundreds of Vermonters sheltered in motels and hotels who are set to lose their state-sponsored rooms this spring.
On Monday afternoon, the House Committee on Appropriations advanced a mid-year budget adjustment bill that provides funding to keep the expanded pandemic-era version of the state’s motel housing program going through the end of June. The program is set to sunset on April 1.
The bill also includes provisions to keep people currently sheltered in motels and hotels under the state’s winter weather policy in emergency housing through June 30. As of now, unhoused Vermonters can get state vouchers for rooms in 30-day increments until March 15.
Proponents of the emergency housing extension emphasized the need to eliminate “artificial” distinctions dictating who gets access to shelter.
“Whether you’re a mom with two children and you happen to become homeless during COVID, or you’re a mom with two children who happened to become homeless last night, your need is for emergency shelter,” said Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, chair of the House Committee on Human Services, in an interview.
The appropriations panel’s vote could set up another standoff between lawmakers and the governor over the fate of the program. If the measure passes the full House, it would still need Senate approval before heading to the governor’s desk. And Scott administration officials have consistently called for an end to the pandemic-era program.
“We think the focus should be on shifting away from our reliance on hotels for temporary shelter,” Nya Pike, a spokesperson for the Department for Children and Families, reiterated in an email Tuesday. Extending the winter weather policy through June “would do the opposite of that and increase our reliance on an expensive program that does not provide any additional resources to Vermonters experiencing homelessness,” Pike said.
The state currently has the capacity to shelter around 1,600 households in state-sponsored rooms, and this winter, rooms are regularly at or near capacity. Last week, the department said it is turning away around 60 households a day.
The budget adjustment bill would provide the Department for Children and Families with over $13 million to keep the emergency housing program going through the end of the fiscal year. That’s $5 million more than the administration originally requested.
The bill also contains an additional $4 million to stand up emergency shelters in five areas. The administration has proposed opening temporary shelters for a three-month time period after the pandemic-era motel program’s anticipated wind-down by April 1.
But lawmakers have criticized the administration’s lack of a firm plan to roll out these shelters, and questioned whether they would be ready by spring.
“Is there any reasonable thinking right now that they would have them ready by April 1? It’s the end of January,” said Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, chair of the House Committee on Appropriations.
Pike said that despite the potential motel program extension, the emergency shelters are still necessary, as is “a continued focus on building up Vermont’s affordable housing stock.”
The budget adjustment bill also caps the rate at which the state can reimburse a hotel or motel to shelter a household at $75 a day. That’s significantly lower than the $132 nightly average the state paid in December.
The administration supports the rate cap, though Pike said the department is concerned that it might cause hotels to drop out of the program. But the department is “optimistic” that the cap could provide the state leverage to buy or lease hotels.
“Buying or leasing hotels would allow them to be turned into more traditional shelters, with access to all of the services available within shelters that the hotel program currently lacks,” Pike said.
The bill also requires the state to “strictly enforce” safety codes at participating hotels and motels. And keeping people in “temporary emergency housing” through June could include shelters or apartments, not just motel rooms.
The timeline proposed in the bill hews closely to a recommendation from the city of Burlington to the state last week, which suggested that Chittenden County could house all people in the pandemic-era version of the motel program by July 1.
Brenda Siegel, an advocate for unhoused Vermonters, said the extension through June for a broad swath of people in motel-based shelter “sends a clear and strong message that everybody who is experiencing homelessness deserves to be sheltered.”
But given the striking increase in homelessness Vermont has seen since the onset of the pandemic, Siegel argued that the state needs to develop a long-term plan for addressing the crisis – instead of extending benefits incrementally.
“For the past three years, every few months, people experiencing homelessness, providers, communities, hotels, have all been on the edge of their seat until just a couple of days before the end of a deadline for emergency shelter,” she said. “What that has done is made it so that people are in fear of crisis [and] of being unhoused.”
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