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Judge rules in state’s favor, denying injunction in motel housing case

A row of attorneys in a courtroom look at a video playing outside of the shot.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Jonathan Rose with the Attorney General's Office, from left, and Sandra Paritz, Maryellen Griffin and Leah Burdick, with Vermont Legal Aid, watch a video showing testimony from a legislative committee at Chittenden Superior Court on Thursday, March 21.

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

A Vermont Superior Court judge has denied a preliminary injunction that Vermont Legal Aid sought in an effort to keep people sheltered through the state’s motel housing program until officials screened them for continued eligibility.

The 10-page decision, issued by Chittenden County Superior Court Judge Helen Toor on Friday, concludes that the Department for Children and Families did not violate a recent change in law surrounding the motel program when it moved forward with exiting hundreds of unhoused Vermonters from motels last week.

On March 15, people who received a voucher through the program’s winter-weather policy needed to prove they had a qualifying vulnerability in order to hang onto their rooms for a few more months.

Vermont Legal Aid attorneys argued that the state did not adequately screen motel program participants to see if they fell into that category before ending their vouchers last week, and therefore ran afoul of a recently-passed law that says state officials “shall ensure” that those individuals get emergency housing through June 30.

But Toor, in her decision, wrote that DCF’s approach “was one possible interpretation of the law as written.”

Close up of a woman in black judge's robes gesturing as she speaks. The American flag is in the background.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Judge Helen Toor speaks during a hearing over the state's handling of the motel program wind-down at Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington on Thursday, March 21.

If the Legislature had intended that motel program participants remain in their rooms while being assessed for additional qualifying criteria, “they could have so specified,” the judge wrote.

If the Legislature had intended that motel program participants remain in their rooms while being assessed for additional qualifying criteria, “they could have so specified,” the judge wrote.

Lawmakers’ language was not so clear-cut. Toor pointed to wording in the law that stipulates that the state “shall, when available, prioritize temporary emergency housing at housing or shelter placements other than licensed hotels or motels.”

That meant DCF had discretion in how it sought to provide shelter, and it “decided to use its usual process of requiring people to re-up when their authorizations ended,” Toor wrote, “rather than keeping everyone where they were while assessing their qualifications for a different category of housing approval.”

In a statement, Sandra Paritz, a Legal Aid attorney representing a group of unhoused individuals and homeless services organizations in the case, called the decision “terrible news for the hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in Vermont including people with disabilities, families with children, people who are elderly, and people who are low-income and unable to find housing.”

A standing woman speaks, gesturing with her hand. Two other women sit beside her.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Attorney Sandra Paritz, along with attorneys Maryellen Griffin and Leah Burdick, all with Vermont Legal Aid, give their opening argument to the judge at Chittenden Superior Court on Thursday, March 21.

Attorneys for the state offered several lines of defense at a Thursday afternoon court hearing. In addition to noting that motel program participants typically have to call the state in order to secure their ongoing eligibility — not the other way around — they argued that the Department for Children and Families had little time to react to the legislative changes in eligibility for the program. The attorneys noted, too, that DCF provided notices about the updates to participants — and it set up mass temporary shelters for people exiting the motels, an unusual move.

Earlier in the week, Toor issued a temporary restraining order in the same case, allowing three individuals who had lost their motel vouchers last week — two of whom spent the weekend sleeping outside, according to Legal Aid — to remain sheltered through the program.

At one point during Thursday’s hearing questions arose about finding one of those plaintiffs who had been unsheltered. “We’ve tried to reach him or find him, but he’s somewhere, we think, out in the snow,” said Legal Aid attorney Maryellen Griffin.

The Legal Aid attorneys had hoped Toor would extend an injunction to all motel program participants who had been exited. While the question of how to find them remained, the attorneys told VTDigger/Vermont Public after Thursday’s hearing that this weekend’s winter storm presented a sort of opportunity. The weather has triggered the state’s night-by-night Adverse Weather Conditions policy for Friday and Saturday statewide; if people who left the motels last week came back, the state could then screen them to see if they are eligible for an extension.

A man in glasses sits next to a woman with brown hair, looking at a speaker out of the shot.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Attorney Jonathan Rose, with the Attorney General's Office, listens as attorneys from Vermont Legal Aid speak to the judge at Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington on Thursday, March 21.

Toor ruled that the other plaintiffs in the case — several homeless service provider organizations, who argued that they needed to “divert resources away” from their regular duties because of the state’s failure to ensure motel-based shelter for their clients — did not themselves suffer irreparable harm because of the state’s actions.

“They are no doubt frustrated, overworked due to this chaotic situation, anxious about their clients, and having to set aside other tasks to try to house those vulnerable individuals recently shut out of motels, but the evidence does not suggest that these factors meet the test for irreparable harm to the organizations,” Toor wrote.

At the close of her decision, Toor took the liberty to call out the lack of a comprehensive approach to addressing homelessness in Vermont.

“It appears to the court, however, that the current approach to homelessness in Vermont is an overly complicated bureaucratic and financial maze,” she wrote. “The sort of chaos created here by the last-minute legislative changes — for all of the plaintiffs and other motel residents, but also for hardworking DCF staff — cannot be the best way to manage the problem.”

Parties on both sides of this case, Toor wrote, “could work together to design a big-picture approach to the problem rather than continuing to cobble together short-term solutions while in crisis mode.”

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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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