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

While state stands up shelters, some Vermonters exit motels without a plan

A man stands outside with a backpack on his back and another one strapped to his front
Glenn Russell
Chris Lewis leaves the Motel 6 in Colchester on Friday, March 15, 2024, where he had been living as part of the state's motel program. Lewis and some other residents lost their eligibility Friday. Lewis says he plans to sleep outside but that he has no tent.

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

Updated at 6:23 p.m.

It was check-out time at the Motel 6 in Colchester on Friday morning, and Chris Lewis was making a beeline toward the bus stop with a couple of backpacks. He’d had a voucher through Vermont’s motel shelter program, which more people qualify for during the coldest winter months. But that annual policy changed today; now people must reapply for a room on a night-by-night basis, based on strict weather-dependent criteria.

Lewis told a reporter that when he last communicated with the state, “they just said, if it was cold enough,” he could keep his room. This gray, rainy Friday did not clear the bar.

“So, gonna have to sleep outside,” Lewis said. He didn’t have a tent.

Legislators had attempted to halt a mass exodus from the motel program ahead of Friday’s cutoff. A recently-passed extension to the program allows many to remain in their rooms 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 until the summer.

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, a requirement many advocates have long considered too narrow. The new measure allows people to submit a form, signed by a health care provider, attesting they have a disability or health condition.

Had he known about that option, Lewis, who has a heart disease, might have been able to keep his room.

A man wears a blue and gray baseball hat. In the background a sign says "welcome"
Glenn Russell
Vermont Public
Chris Lewis leaves the Motel 6 in Colchester on Friday, March 15, 2024, where he had been living as part of the state's motel program. Lewis and some other residents lost their eligibility Friday. Lewis says he plans to sleep outside but that he has no tent.

He applied for federal disability benefits last fall, he said, but has not yet been approved — and he did not know about the state’s newly-approved disability waiver. Lewis had spent the morning attempting to get in touch with staff at the Department for Children and Families. “I called Wednesday, and they told me to call back on Friday,” he said. He was on hold for three hours, he said, until check-out time came around at 11.

As of Friday afternoon, the Department for Children and Families said 372 households were scheduled to lose their rooms on Friday. Another 73 households were able to keep their rooms by submitting a disability variance form.

Helter shelter

A few miles away from the Motel 6, state workers were setting up cots inside the former Health Department offices at 108 Cherry Street in downtown Burlington.

The site was one of four shelters being set up by the state in a last-minute effort to provide a temporary place for people to stay as they exit the motels.

But as Lewis hustled to catch his bus — he was headed to Williston, having concluded it would be safer to sleep outside there than in Burlington — he said he had not heard about the temporary shelters. Another motel program participant leaving the Motel 6 also reported not knowing about the shelters.

A man carries a reusable grocery bag in one hand and wears two backpacks as he walks away from the camera through a parking lot
Glenn Russell
Chris Lewis leaves the Motel 6 in Colchester on Friday, March 15, 2024, where he had been living as part of the state's motel program. Lewis and some other residents lost their eligibility Friday. Lewis says he plans to sleep outside but that he has no tent.

Nothing from the outside of the Cherry Street building on Friday morning suggested that a temporary shelter would be opening to the public within a matter of hours.

Inside, cots with pillows were set up side-by-side in former office spaces. Josh Reese, a district facilities supervisor with the state’s Buildings and General Services department, said about 100 cots had been brought in, and they would likely spill into the building’s lobby. Guests would be able to use bathrooms on the main floor, Reese said, but would likely not have access to showers on-site.

The other three shelters are located at the Agency of Natural Resources Annex building in Berlin, the former Vermont Yankee administrative building in Brattleboro, and the Asa Bloomer building in Rutland. Each has 100 beds, except for the Rutland location, which has 42, according to Department for Children and Families spokesperson Nya Pike.

Green cots fill a room. A pile of pillows on top of boxes on one side of the room is at risk of tipping over
Glenn Russell
Cots are set up in a temporary shelter for unhoused people in the former Zampieri office building on Cherry Street in Burlington on Friday, March 15, 2024. One hundred cots are expected to be available.

They will be open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. “for up to seven days,” according to a Friday press release from the Department for Children and Families. Guests need to arrive before 11 p.m. “and should have minimal personal items.” Weapons and substance use are prohibited, and service animals will be welcome.

National Guard members, medical professionals, and security personnel will staff the sites, according to the release. The state is not providing transportation from motels to the shelters, and is instead relying on help from community agencies, Pike said.

‘We set up a game plan’

Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has come under fire for its handling of Friday’s transition.

Vermont Legal Aid filed a complaint in state court Friday morning alleging that state officials failed to assess motel program participants to determine whether they could remain sheltered, and failed to adequately notify them that they might need extra documentation ahead of Friday’s deadline.

By Friday afternoon, a Chittenden County Superior Court judge set a court hearing for next Thursday but denied Legal Aid’s request for a temporary restraining order, according to staff attorney Rebecca Plummer.

The Department for Children and Families, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the legal action.

A man wearing a baseball cap and a dark jacket stands outside
Glenn Russell
Vermont Public
Eric Smith leaves the Motel 6 in Colchester on Friday, March 15, 2024, where he had been living as part of the state's motel program. Smith and some other residents lost their eligibility Friday.

The administration, however, has stood by its approach. In an emailed response to questions Friday, Jason Maulucci, press secretary for Gov. Phil Scott, emphasized that the winter-weather policy ends each year, and the transition “should not be a surprise.”

“The difference is, this year, at the Governor’s direction, the state is doing more to assist with this annual transition by setting up temporary shelters,” Maulucci continued. “That has never happened.”

People stand outside near a podium. One person holds a sign reading "When it rains, when it snows, unhoused Vermonters have nowhere to go..."
Babette Stolk
Religious leaders and housing advocates held a press conference on Friday, March 15, 2024, urging the state to allow people to remain in their motel rooms.

At a Friday afternoon press conference at the Christ Episcopal Church in Montpelier, religious leaders and housing advocates echoed Legal Aid’s demand that residents be able to remain in the motels while sorting through their eligibility.

Brenda Siegel, executive director of End Homelessness Vermont, said at the event that she has been working to find medical providers who can sign the disability waiver forms for motel residents.

“There is no way I will get to everybody,” Siegel said, stating that she still had messages from 75 people in her inbox as of Friday afternoon. “This is intentional harm and cruelty by the administration,” she added. “This is not the act of a governor that cares about the most vulnerable Vermonters, because this is the direct opposite behavior of that.”

At the Cortina Inn in Rutland, employees also said they’d been scrambling to try to prevent 52 of their residents from losing their rooms on Friday. Shaun Bryer, the inn’s office supervisor, said he and other staff began working with End Homelessness Vermont and other groups to connect guests with primary care physicians, who could determine whether they qualified for a waiver.

“We set up a game plan,” Bryer said. “We’re helping to get as many people as possible qualified.”

By Friday afternoon, Bryer said, all but two of the residents that were meant to leave the Cortina Inn had qualified for an extension. Those two residents left of their own accord Friday morning, he said.

Bryer noted that not all participating motels in Rutland were able to respond so quickly, however. “We feel here like we’re on a little bit better ground than some of the other motels,” he said.

A brick three-story office building on a city street
Glenn Russell
A temporary shelter for unhoused people is due to open on Friday, March 15, 2024, in the former Zampieri office building on Cherry Street in Burlington.

Lawmakers and local officials push back

The last-minute shelter plan has prompted outcries from local officials across the state, who said they only received notice of the plan a couple days ago, leaving their communities little time to prepare.

“It is shocking that the State’s motel guests, Vermont cities, affected downtowns, schools, law enforcement officials, and service providers are being given hours to prepare for the opening of four huge temporary shelters around the state,” said Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger in a statement Thursday.

In a Friday memo to state officials, the mayor requested a series of changes to shelter operations, noting that “they do not provide basic needs such as showers and storage.”

Lawmakers have also levied increasingly harsh criticism against the administration, arguing that the executive branch has not followed the legislative aim to keep vulnerable Vermonters sheltered.

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.

At a Statehouse press conference on Thursday, Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, argued that the administration should push back Friday’s impending policy change to provide the state enough time to adequately screen motel program participants. She lambasted the administration’s move to exit people before a thorough assessment process could take place.

“The step that’s happening right now appears to us to be in direct disregard for legislative intent, and really trying to achieve what the administration wanted to do from the beginning — which was to unhouse people in Adverse Weather Conditions, finding that that was too large of a group to continue to house,” Wood said.

The administration has maintained that it is implementing the law as directed by lawmakers. And in an interview Thursday, Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner of the Department for Children and Families’ economic services division, said the Legislature did not give the administration much time to adapt to the new law.

‘I can probably figure something out for tonight, but that’s about it’

At the Econo Lodge in Rutland Friday afternoon, a man named Connor, who declined to give his last name, said he got a motel room in January after finding himself without a home for the first time in his life. About two weeks ago, he learned that he would have to move out of his room on Friday.

“It was a little bit of a surprise,” he said. “I called to renew and they told me I’d only have a couple weeks and I was like, wait what?”

As he scrambled to find somewhere else to go this week, his mother passed away. “So it’s been kind of a stressful situation, figuring this out at the moment,” he said.

Another motel resident told Connor, who said he struggles with depression and other mental health challenges, that he might be able to speak with a state employee on Friday morning to extend his stay. On Friday afternoon, however, he was still waiting at the motel for the woman, and hadn’t heard further.

Connor said he wasn’t sure what he would do next. “I can probably figure something out for tonight, but that’s about it, so I’m just really kind of hoping this works,” he said. “But I’m hoping to not stay here forever,” he added, noting that he wants find a job “and get back on my feet.”

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.
Latest Stories