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

Senate’s version of budget would reduce motel room capacity by a third

A woman dressed in red and black stands, resting her arms on two leather chairs, while speaking to someone across the table.
Glenn Russell
Sen. Jane Kitchel, a Democrat from Caledonia, speaks with Sen. Tom Chittenden, a Democrat from Chittenden Southeast, at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

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

The capacity of Vermont’s motel shelter program for unhoused people could shrink by a third for much of the coming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

The Vermont Senate passed its version of the state budget on Thursday, which would place a cap on the number of motel and hotel rooms the state would pay for moving forward. A 1,000-room cap would go into effect Sept. 15, and stay in place during the warmer months; during the winter, when the program opens up to anyone experiencing homelessness, the cap would rise to 1,300 rooms.

No such cap exists for the program now, which currently shelters about 1,500 households, though that figure fluctuates somewhat throughout the year. By definition, everyone currently sheltered through the program meets vulnerability criteria set by the Legislature. The group includes families with children, people with disabilities and elderly people.

“The level of funding that was available during the Covid era when this program got started just are not there anymore."
Sen. Jane Kitchel

The caps are lawmakers’ latest attempt to scale back the expanded, pandemic-era version of the motel program, which was supported by federal Covid-19 relief funds. The Senate’s budget also includes an 80-day limit per household on motel room stays, signaling an end to the era of mass, months-long extensions. Budget writers say the new measures are intended to rein in costs as the state returns to a pre-pandemic budget reality.

“The level of funding that was available during the Covid era when this program got started just are not there anymore,” said Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, who chairs the Senate Committee on Appropriations, in an interview Wednesday.

But homelessness advocates lambasted the room cap as arbitrary, and pointed out that when the state had capacity for around 1,600 households this winter, it regularly turned dozens of people away.

“It’s problematic that the state on one hand is recognizing that, ‘Yes, we recognize these people are so vulnerable that we need to ensure emergency shelter for them,’ – and on the other hand saying, ‘But we’re going to create this random room cap that has no basis in reality, no basis in need,’” said Frank Knaack, director of the Housing and Homelessness Alliance of Vermont.

A brick motel building with red doors
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
The Autumn Inn, a motel in Bennington that shelters unhoused people through the state’s motel voucher program, pictured on Jan. 31, 2024.

‘A whole new concept’

The room cap measure emerged out of deliberations between House and Senate budget writers, and was first introduced publicly in the Senate Appropriations committee late last Friday. It came as something of a curveball even to some lawmakers consulted during the negotiations.

“That was a whole new concept that was introduced at the, you know, kind of eleventh hour of their deliberations,” said Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, who chairs the House Committee Human Services.

Questions around where, exactly, the idea for a room cap originated resulted in a round of finger-pointing. Kitchel said Wednesday that the room cap provision came as a proposal from the House. Wood said that, during deliberations, the Department for Children and Families “was most interested in the room cap.” DCF Commissioner Chris Winters said Thursday that he was not sure where the idea came from, but added that lawmakers have been “working hard to find a real balance here between protecting the most vulnerable and the funds that are available.”

Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations, said in an interview Thursday that the idea originated “from math.”

She said after the House passed its version of the budget last month — allocating about $44 million for the motel program — members of Gov. Phil Scott’s administration argued that the House’s outline for the program would actually cost considerably more. The House’s budget includes slightly longer day-limits for people in the program, along with a longer winter-weather period, and does not include a room cap.

Rather than wait until the budget bill arrives in a committee of conference — where a group of House and Senate leaders, expected to be appointed in the coming days, will hash out their differences, and where the proposed motel policy could shift again — Lanpher said she wanted “to start this conversation” around the motel program budget imbalance earlier. The conversation with Kitchel and others revolved around how to make the funding match the policy, she said.

Asked if she planned to continue negotiating the motel program policy in the budget, Lanpher said the House would “hold onto our thought at the moment on that and wait ‘til we get in the room.” But, she said, she feels the Senate’s language “is about 95% settled.”

Future choices

After the House and Senate reconcile their budget differences, the bill will head to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.

In the meantime, the Department for Children and Families is considering how the version of the motel program policy advanced by the Senate would work in practice. Come July 1, current participants in the program would have to decide when to use their allotted 80 days for the year, Commissioner Winters said. They could decide to leave right away, saving those days for later, or they could use them immediately, teeing up an exit date in September. (Winter-month stays would not count toward the 80-day maximum).

Those decisions would matter: if enough people decide to leave before the room cap took effect on Sept. 15, the department might be able to hit the 1,000-room threshold through attrition.

But if not, that leaves questions on how the department would implement the cap. Winters said DCF wants more clarity from legislators on what they want the department to do if more than 1,000 rooms are still in use come mid-September.

“How do we make those choices? How do we prioritize?” Winters said.

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