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State says temporary homeless shelters cost $50K a night

A sidewalk sign reads "shelter here" with an arrow pointing to a door. People gather around the door, and a suitcase and a pair of shoes are on the sidewalk
Glenn Russell
People who are unhoused line up to be admitted to a temporary shelter in Burlington on Monday, March 18, 2024.

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

The state is spending approximately $50,000 a night to operate four mass temporary homeless shelters that have seen little use since Gov. Phil Scott’s administration stood them up last Friday.

The Scott administration scrambled to assemble the four shelters as hundreds of people lost their eligibility for state-subsidized rooms through Vermont’s motel housing program. On Friday, people who received a voucher through the program’s winter-weather eligibility needed to prove they had a qualifying vulnerability in order to hang onto their rooms for a few more months.

Nya Pike, a spokesperson for the Department for Children and Families, provided the cost estimate for the shelters on Wednesday afternoon in response to a request from VTDigger/Vermont Public earlier this week.

State officials are facing a legal challenge that argues they didn’t adequately screen people who might qualify for an extension before evicting them — and should have let participants remain in their rooms while those screenings took place.

Allowing people to remain in the motels would likely have cost significantly less than operating the shelters during that same time period. With a $80 nightly rate cap now in effect, motel rooms for the 458 households expected to lose their vouchers last Friday would have amounted to roughly $36,600 a night.

Tuesday night saw the most traffic at the four temporary shelter sites in Berlin, Brattleboro, Burlington, and Rutland, according to emails from state officials to lawmakers and local leaders shared with VTDigger/Vermont Public. Thirty-four people stayed at the shelters that night, which collectively have space for 342 people. That amounts to a cost of about $1,470 per person. Last Friday night saw the fewest number of people show up: just five. That night cost $10,000 per person.

Asked about the cost of the temporary shelters at a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Gov. Scott said he did not yet know the price tag, but acknowledged the cost per bed – given the low turnout – could be substantial.

“I guess…if you take it per person at this point in time, it’s going to be significant,” Scott said.

Homelessness advocates and service providers have argued that the low turnout does not indicate a lack of need for shelter space. Rather, they say, the scant numbers reflect the state’s failure to adequately inform motel program participants about the shelters, lack of transportation provided to the sites, and the lack of basic amenities like showers and storage space.

Local reactions

The municipalities hosting the shelters have responded in different ways. Rutland City issued a zoning violation against the state on Tuesday, arguing that the state did not acquire a permit to operate the Asa Bloomer building as a homeless shelter, according to the Rutland Herald.

At a separate press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger called for the state to continue operating the temporary shelter on Cherry Street beyond March 22 — when he said state officials indicated to his team that they intended to close the shelter down. (The Department for Children and Families told VTDigger/Vermont Public on Wednesday that “there are no closure plans to share at this time.”)

The vast majority of people utilizing the state’s temporary shelters have gone to the Burlington site, which saw an uptick in use after the city’s seasonal warming shelter shut down on Monday.

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.

The city has sought state permission to set up a shelter at the Cherry Street location before. Weinberger emphasized that the temporary accommodations at the site now fail to provide basic resources — but given the lack of other shelter options available in town, “it would be a policy failure, it would be a moral failure, it would be an economic failure for the state to go forward with their plan to close the Cherry Street shelter on Friday.”

Scott administration defends handling of motel program and shelters

Asked whether he considered the temporary shelter operation a success, Scott said he did. “I think we learned a lot, and what we could do, and what we’re capable of doing,” he said. But, he added, “when you have to set up homeless emergency shelters, it’s hard to talk about success.”

Scott has consistently stressed the need for fiscal responsibility in state government, and has repeatedly emphasized that the current iteration of the motel program is too expensive to continue.

Asked why the administration chose to stand up the temporary shelters rather than allow motel program participants to remain in their rooms, given the nightly cost differential, Scott’s press secretary, Jason Maulucci, contended that most individuals who were slated to be exited from the program last week would not qualify as vulnerable and thus would not be eligible for an extension.

“The Governor believed it was important to offer individuals are further transitionary safety net,” Maulucci wrote in email. “It is also why these were planned to be temporary, not ongoing expenses.”

But advocates say that the majority of Vermonters sheltered through the motel program should qualify under a new, expanded definition of disability that lawmakers passed earlier this month. The new provision allows participants to submit a waiver attesting that unsheltered homelessness would be particularly harmful for their health, with the sign-off of a healthcare provider.

“The expectation that we understood, and that I think legislators understood, was that the majority of people in the hotels qualified under this expanded definition of disability,” said Brenda Siegel, executive director of End Homelessness Vermont.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 157 households — or more than a third of those who could have lost eligibility last week — “qualified under the new form, or the form has been filed and we’re processing those,” DCF Commissioner Chris Winters said at the governor’s press conference.

On Tuesday, Chittenden County Superior Court issued a temporary restraining order in a Vermont Legal Aid lawsuit that argues the state failed to reach motel program participants covered by the new disability waiver and that officials “refused to extend the wintertime shelter program to give time for this to happen,” according to a Legal Aid press release.

The legal action came after the organization added motel program participants as plaintiffs to the case; originally, only service provider organizations were listed as plaintiffs. A hearing for the case is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

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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