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Advocates decry proposed cap on emergency motel vouchers, brace for other limits

A person stands at a podium to speak in front of people holding signs reading "VIA: Vermont Interfaith Action" and "homelessness is a policy failure."
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
Sarah Russell, special assistant to end homelessness for the city of Burlington, and co-chair of the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, speaks at a Statehouse press conference on May 1, 2024.

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

Homelessness advocates and service providers are sounding the alarm that a last-minute Senate proposal to put a lid on the number of rooms available through the state’s motel voucher program would push more Vermonters into unsheltered homelessness.

“Closing off available beds, and forcing people outside is a policy choice — not an inevitability,” said Falko Schilling, advocacy director of the ACLU of Vermont, at a Statehouse press conference on Wednesday. “If this proposal is put into law, it will directly harm vulnerable Vermonters who rely on the emergency housing program as a means of shelter.”

Last week, the Vermont Senate passed its version of the state budget, which would place a cap on the number of motel and hotel rooms paid for by the state. A 1,000-room cap would go into effect Sept. 15; 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 serves about 1,500 households who meet vulnerability criteria, including 565 children, according to Department for Children and Families spokesperson Nya Pike. The program shelters many of the state’s unhoused residents: Traditional shelters have space for about 550 households, and are generally full.

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

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. And they are not yet set in stone: House and Senate budget writers have now entered their final stage of negotiations over the budget for fiscal year 2025, which begins on July 1.

Gov. Phil Scott expressed his hesitation with the room cap proposal at his weekly press conference Wednesday, saying it might inhibit Vermonters in need of assistance.

“We want to make sure that we’re helping those who really need the help. Putting the hard caps in doesn’t always accomplish that,” Scott said, adding that his administration will do its part to put lawmakers’ ultimate decisions into practice.

Long enough?

The conversation in Montpelier about the motel voucher program this year has focused on balancing budget constraints with the needs of vulnerable Vermonters. It has largely revolved around setting eligibility criteria and day limits moving forward, signaling an end to the era of mass, months-long extensions that have become something of a norm as lawmakers have attempted to wind down the contentious program over the last several years.

The Senate’s budget proposal of about $44 million for the program’s operation includes an 80-day limit per household on motel room stays. Though advocates want to see people continuously sheltered, they have generally backed the House’s budget proposal, which — at the same dollar amount — includes a 90-day limit for people in the program, along with a longer winter-weather period, and does not include a room cap.

The administration’s leaner proposal — totaling $24 million — would limit motel room stays to 28 days, and restrict who could access the program during the winter months.

Yet it takes much longer for many unhoused people to find permanent housing than even the longest length of motel stays under consideration. According to a memo the Housing and Homelessness Alliance of Vermont sent to the Senate Committee on Appropriations last month, the majority of unhoused Vermonters are unable to secure housing for at least 181 days.

In Chittenden County, it takes around 274 days for most unhoused households to access housing, said Sarah Russell, special assistant to end homelessness for the city of Burlington, and co-chair of the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, following Wednesday’s press conference. That’s partly due to the area’s razor-thin rental vacancy rate. When apartments become available, “you can see up to 100 applicants for that one unit,” she said.

Chittenden County also lacks enough case managers, Russell said; it can take about eight to 12 weeks for a household to be connected to a housing navigator. That means a household could feasibly enter the motel program, apply for a housing navigator, and then get exited from their room before getting connected to help.

“And then it's like, all of that work was really for nothing,” Russell said. “It’s incredibly problematic to not have the length of stay, and the caps, based on the data that we actually have.”

Stuck in the Senate

Several lawmakers stood alongside the advocates during Wednesday’s press conference.

Rep. Jubilee McGill, D-Bridport, and Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, both serve on the House Committee on Human Services, which spent much of the winter working on H.879, a bill that would set up a new Emergency Temporary Shelter Program in state law. Now, the motel program exists as a financial benefit rather than a bona fide “program,” and many of its policies are left up to rulemaking by the Agency of Human Services.

Proponents of H.879, which passed the House in early April and would go into effect in fiscal year 2026, say it would make the motel program more predictable. The House’s budget language for the motel program mirrored much of what appears in H.879.

A woman with glasses and white hair speaks while using her hands. Another woman looks on from the side.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Sen. Jane Kitchel responds to Gov. Phil Scott's budget address on Jan. 23, 2024. Kitchel is the chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

The bill has stalled in the upper chamber; it now sits in the Senate Committee on Appropriations. Asked last week if she planned to take it up, the committee’s chair, Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, said she wasn’t sure.

“The way that’s designed, it creates a new program, and would require a lot more funding than we have,” Kitchel said, adding that her committee’s priority was focusing on next year’s budget.

McGill and Small characterized the House’s shelter bill as a compromise: one that sought a balance between reining in costs for the program now that the state is footing the bill, and providing temporary shelter when few other options are available.

They noted, too, that the Senate has yet to advance H.829, a bill that creates new revenue streams for a wide range of housing programs and that supporters have lauded as Vermont’s long-overdue plan to reduce reliance on motels and hotels for shelter. Yet key Senators have expressed a lack of appetite to raise taxes and a desire to focus on easing regulations that impede housing development — not continuing to spend.

“The two bills were designed to work together, in tandem, to meet the needs of Vermonters,” McGill said of H.879 and H.829. “So to not even have the consideration of the Senate for a true plan out of this crisis, I think, is the biggest disappointment for me of this session.”

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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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