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Anticipating hundreds will lose motel rooms Friday, state to open four temporary shelters

A brick motel building with red doors
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
The Autumn Inn, a motel in Bennington that shelters unhoused people through the state’s motel voucher program, pictured on Jan. 31, 2024.

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

Read more from Friday, March 15: While state stands up shelters, some Vermonters exit motels without a plan

State officials revealed plans Wednesday to stand up four mass homeless shelters within the next three days.

The shelters would only be open for a short period to allow a subset of “vulnerable” people currently staying in motels to apply for a new waiver to retain their eligibility for the program, and to give the rest a few days to find alternate housing. They are the result of a last-minute scramble as Gov. Phil Scott’s administration responds to changing laws around the program.

The shelters are slated to be ready by the time winter-weather eligibility for the state’s motel shelter program shifts on Friday. After that, people must reapply for a room on a night-by-night basis, based on strict weather-dependent criteria.

Many households should be able to remain in their rooms longer, however. Before they went home for Town Meeting Day, lawmakers passed an extension to the motel program, stipulating that anyone who entered the program under the Adverse Weather Conditions policy — yet also qualifies as vulnerable or having experienced a catastrophic life event — should be able to remain until June 30.

Gov. Phil Scott signed the measure into law Wednesday afternoon.

Yet the Department for Children and Families estimates that 458 households – or about 500 individuals – could potentially lose their vouchers on Friday, DCF Commissioner Chris Winters told lawmakers Wednesday morning.

When lawmakers voted to extend the program, they also expanded who counts as vulnerable. Historically, to qualify as having a disability, participants needed to prove they received Social Security or disability benefits from the federal government. The new measure allows people to attest they have a disability or health condition via a special form.

Winters said the department determined that it needed some sort of “step down shelter” as a transition, and to allow for additional time to get program participants connected to the variance form. The shelters would likely only operate for a few days, however.

“As far as the length of time for these shelters, it would definitely be measured in days, not weeks – perhaps seven days,” Winters said.

The Department of Public Safety’s emergency management division has been mobilized to rapidly stand up the shelters. The department’s deputy commissioner, Daniel Batsie, told lawmakers the shelters are planned for Bennington, Berlin, Burlington, and Rutland, but did not specify their precise locations.

Each location could accommodate approximately 150 people, Batsie said. The shelters would be overnight only, meaning guests would need to leave during the day. They would have cots inside.

The state is still pulling together staffing for the sites, and “the National Guard is in the conversations around that,” Batsie said. Law enforcement would be contracted to provide security at each site.

Lawmakers sitting at a table in a committee room in the Statehouse.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Waterbury Rep. and chair of the House Human Services Committee Theresa Wood, second from left, photographed in February 2023.

‘Unacceptable,’ says key legislator

Lawmakers expressed dismay at the shelter plans, arguing that the administration’s implementation of the motel program extension has run counter to the Legislature’s intent.

“This is just unacceptable. Period,” said Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, who chairs the House Committee on Human Services.

Central to lawmakers’ criticism was the administration’s choice to require a “qualified health care provider” to sign off on the disability variance form – a bar not required by a prior iteration of the form used during the pandemic.

Winters said that new provision was a matter of debate within DCF, and the department opted to include the requirement in order to “prioritize the most vulnerable – we want to be very careful about opening the door too wide to potential abuse, or potential folks who aren’t necessarily needing housing,” he said.

Lawmakers also pressed state officials on their screening process to determine who might be eligible to remain in the program.

“There should be somebody at every single hotel – every single hotel – right now meeting with people to determine whether or not they meet categorical or catastrophic eligibility,” Wood said. “If that’s not happening, then we are not doing enough.”

Winters said that the department had “not communicated very much at all, admittedly” to service providers, motels and hotels, and program participants, as it interpreted the bill and waited for the governor to sign it.

Crucial days

On Tuesday, the department sent out a letter to participants saying they should “plan to check out of their room” on Friday unless the winter-weather policy was triggered for that night. The letter noted that the Legislature had “proposed some other changes” to the program, but none had been signed into law. (By that point, the department had, however, already implemented another provision of the bill — a rate cap on motel rooms — even without the governor’s signature.)

At a press conference early Wednesday afternoon, homelessness advocates lambasted the administration’s implementation of the motel program extension.

“They are manufacturing a crisis,” said Brenda Siegel, executive director of End Homelessness Vermont. “And then standing up inhumane congregate emergency shelters for only seven days, that are also only at night, rather than extending people and giving them adequate time to get their disability form filled out.”

Rebecca Plummer, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, said the organization is considering suing the state for its handling of the motel program extension, but said they will wait to see how things play out over the next few days.

Later Wednesday afternoon, DCF sent out a message to service providers and advocates, notifying them of the program extension and disability waiver and asking for their help to distribute the information.

Read more from Friday, March 15: While state stands up shelters, some Vermonters exit motels without a plan

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Corrected: March 14, 2024 at 11:52 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misstated the recipients of the Department for Children and Families' message on Wednesday.
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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