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Last-minute motel program changes tee up court challenge

A three-story motel with balconies
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
The Days Inn in Colchester is one of the motels and hotels that have housed people through an emergency housing program greatly expanded in the pandemic.

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

Vermont Legal Aid plans to seek a temporary restraining order in state court Friday morning in a last-minute attempt to prevent hundreds of Vermonters from losing their shelter through the state’s motel program that same day.

The Department for Children and Families told lawmakers on Wednesday that around 500 individuals could lose their vouchers Friday, when winter-weather eligibility for the motel program is slated to shift: after that, people must reapply for a room on a night-by-night basis, based on strict weather-dependent criteria.

Legal Aid is seeking this pause to give the state adequate time to assess whether program participants may be eligible to remain in their rooms, attorney Rebecca Plummer confirmed to VTDigger/Vermont Public on Thursday afternoon.

A recently-passed extension to the motel program allows many to stay sheltered through the program until June 30. The new law stipulates that anyone who entered the program under the winter-weather policy — but also qualifies as vulnerable or having experienced a catastrophic life event — should be able to remain though June.

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, with the sign-off of a health care provider.

That option is central to Legal Aid’s grievance, Plummer said. She alleged that the administration has not yet adequately screened participants to see if they fall into the new, wider bucket of disability eligibility.

“The Legislature purposefully protected people with disabilities and health conditions beyond that narrow group of people, and there has been no opportunity for those people to be assessed and to present a form saying that they should be considered part of this group that stays through June 30,” Plummer said.

On Wednesday morning, DCF Commissioner Chris Winters told lawmakers 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.

Later that 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 to people staying in motels.

In an interview Thursday morning, Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families’ economic services division, said the department was planning to physically mail information about the eligibility changes to program participants that morning.

Plummer argued that the Scott administration’s implementation of the law runs counter to the Legislature’s intent to keep people sheltered.

Likely defendants in the action will be Winters and Secretary of the Agency of Human Services Jenney Samuelson, Plummer said.

The Department for Children and Families did not immediately provide comment on the potential legal action.

Plummer said a number of homeless service providers will be the plaintiffs, though she declined to name them until the action is finalized.

Meanwhile, the Scott administration has scrambled to stand up four mass homeless shelters for unhoused Vermonters by Friday.

By the end of the day Thursday, Gray had confirmed the location of three of the sites: 108 Cherry St. in Burlington, the Agency of Natural Resources Annex building in Berlin, and the Asa Bloomer building in Rutland. The state was still working to secure a location in either Bennington or Brattleboro.

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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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