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Unhoused Vermonters get extra help in bitter cold but must largely manage extreme heat on their own

A person walks into a library past a chalkboard sign that says "cooling site" with a drawing of a fan
Glenn Russell
The Fletcher Free Library, photographed in 2021, has served as a cooling site in Burlington available for people to seek relief from the heat.

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

As Vermont sees temperatures spike for the first time this year, unhoused people who lack stable access to shelter face limited options as they try to stay cool.

Amid a rise in homelessness, the state’s shelters are typically full. During the coldest months of the year, the state has historically opened up access to its backstop to the shelter system – the motel housing program – to anyone experiencing homelessness. But no such parallel exists for heat waves, or other summertime hazards, such as poor air quality from wildfire smoke.

As Vermont braces for more extreme weather conditions in the future, some say the state’s response to homelessness needs to adapt, too.

“For me, the cold weather opening of the motels is really grounded in a Vermont climate that doesn’t really exist anymore,” said Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Chittenden Central. “Our thinking is pretty behind the realities of climate change at this point.”

Some daytime options do exist for unsheltered Vermonters to escape the heat. The state Department of Health maintains a list of cooling sites with access to air conditioning or water, such as libraries, community centers and state parks.

Some communities have existing day centers where unsheltered people can access services indoors — like Burlington’s COTS Daystation, which reportedly saw an uptick in traffic during a heat wave last September — and have outreach teams that bring cold water to people living in encampments.

Yet service providers say they’re stretched thin as they attempt to meet the needs of a growing number of Vermonters living out in the elements, particularly after hundreds of people were evicted from the motel program last June. In Chittenden County alone, providers estimate that around 200 to 240 people are living outside.

“Ultimately, the bottom line is we have too many people out on the streets, and not enough capacity to serve them,” said Paul Dragon, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

State funding has supported a modest increase in the number of shelter beds available statewide over the last year: capacity has been added for about 110 households, for a total capacity of 547 households, though that number shifts as seasonal shelters open and close and new projects come online, according to an email from Department for Children and Families spokesperson Nya Pike.

Lawmakers allocated about $7 million for permanent shelter bed expansion — and another $10 million intended for emergency winter shelter capacity — for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. The Department for Children and Families is now reviewing applications for some of that funding, according to an emailed statement from Lily Sojourner, director of the department’s Office of Economic Opportunity.

But the state’s year-round capacity for the motel program will be shrinking. Beginning Sept. 15, a 1,100-room cap will go into effect, a measure lawmakers wielded to rein in costs as the state scales back the program’s pandemic-era expansion. The room cap will be lifted during the winter, though eligibility during the colder months will be more limited than it has been in the past. (Gov. Phil Scott has not yet signed the new policy into law, but has signaled his support for it).

Because the motel program currently shelters around 1,500 households — all of whom are deemed vulnerable, based on criteria set in part by lawmakers — the room cap, along with a new 80-day limit on motel stays, will force people out of shelter.

“We’re extremely concerned that they put the caps in place in terms of who has access to shelter in the summer,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of the Housing and Homelessness Alliance of Vermont. “Our shelter system is already completely maxed out.”

For unhoused Vermonters with acute health conditions, opening up motel stays during extreme heat could be a lifeline, Dragon said. “We know that many of the people that we see have cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, diabetes — and it makes their condition much more vulnerable in extreme hot weather.”

Vyhovsky hopes adjusting the state’s motel program policy to address weather hazards outside of the winter months can be a part of the conversation during the 2025 legislative session.

“What can we do right now, to make sure that on any given day when there are alerts going out about not being outside — that we’re making sure no one has to be outside?” Vyhovsky 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.
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