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State scrambles over hundreds of motel program voucher renewals

A three-story motel with balconies
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger

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

Nearly a quarter of households sheltered through Vermont’s motel voucher program were set to depart on Monday, following another round of confusion for unhoused Vermonters who have sought shelter in state-subsidized motel rooms.

As of 1:30 p.m., around 360 households of nearly 1,600 in the program were set to check out, Department for Children and Families spokesperson Nya Pike wrote in an email in response to questions from VTDigger/Vermont Public.

That figure had dropped from nearly 800 on Friday, after DCF spent recent days attempting to reach people sheltered in motels and urging them to renew their vouchers.

The department’s pleas were captured in an email sent to service providers on Friday afternoon, in which a DCF official said more than half of the 1,600 households “have an authorization that ends on 4/1/24 that has yet to be renewed.” In the message, Lily Sojourner, interim director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, asked for providers’ help in securing residents’ renewals.

DCF was also in the process of making outbound calls to households eligible to renew, Sojourner said, a somewhat unusual step in a program that typically relies on households to call in to retain their vouchers.

The reasons for such a large-scale non-renewal for motel vouchers remain murky. Pike noted that nearly 100 households who receive disability or Social Security benefits had a required income contribution on Monday, and many likely wouldn’t call until they had fulfilled it.

Others might be moving into permanent housing, Pike said, though the state only tracks this metric for a subset of motel program participants who entered the program during its pandemic-era expansion.

Some homelessness advocates say that the state has provided minimal communication to motel program participants as recent changes to eligibility criteria – and extensions – have gone into effect.

For instance, before an extension was signed into law last month, hundreds of people who entered the pandemic-era version of the program had been slated to lose their rooms on April 1. That cohort is now eligible to remain until June 30, but some advocates say many people in that group don’t know they’re able to stay.

“The majority of people in the hotels don’t know they still qualify until June 30,” said Brenda Siegel, executive director of End Homelessness Vermont. “If you’re in the cohort, and you think April 1st was the end, why would you call to renew?”

Asked what communication the department provided to households eligible for extensions, Pike said DCF had mailed notices to motel program participants and worked with field staff and hotel staff to distribute information.

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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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