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Burlington seeks money for longer emergency motel stays and new downtown shelter

COTS is using 'trauma-informed design' in how they setup their program spaces. The concept is meant to create and maintain healing environments for people who have experienced trauma.
Courtesy of COTS
This hour, we hear from the executive director of COTS. Above, COTS Daystation is a safe place that connects people with housing, services and resources.

Shelter workers are scrambling to help hundreds of Vermonters who are facing homelessness after being evicted from the state’s motel housing program.

The city of Burlington and the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance are asking the state for about $4 million for an emergency shelter and to extend motel stays for 165 vulnerable households.

“For the state to, later this summer, to turn out elderly Vermonters, people living with disabilities, and worst of all, young children and families to live in tents or in congregate shelters for months would be unacceptable,” Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said at a Monday press conference.

In Chittenden County, 194 people were required to leave their motel rooms last week. Another 318 people are expected to leave the motels in late July, including 115 children and other people with vulnerable circumstances, said Sarah Russell, Burlington's special assistant to end homelessness, speaking on Vermont Edition on Tuesday.

Burlington's proposed shelter would be located at a largely vacant state office building on Cherry Street and would house up to 50 people. There would also be a daytime shelter with meals and case management services.

The Agency of Human Services hasn't yet confirmed that the office building is workable as a shelter location, Russell said. Burlington could also face challenges staffing the new shelter and is considering working with a staffing agency.

Buying time?

In addition to the new shelter, Burlington is asking the state to temporarily extend motel stays for vulnerable households until February, at a cost of $1.7 million. During that time, local organizations would work to find permanent housing.

"Families with children and people receiving home health services simply would have nowhere else to go if they were not in a motel," Russell said. "So we're talking about families sleeping in tents and cars, people trying to receive home health services from tents outside."

Jonathan Farrell, executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter in Burlington, is concerned that the plan to extend motel stays could prioritize the housing search for people sheltered in motels over other people who are already in shelters and have housing vouchers.

"I think that's the main point that I want to make, is that we shouldn't strand one population because they're doing well and working hard," Farrell said.

Russell said no one is seeking to pit vulnerable populations against each other.

The state hasn't yet responded to the proposal to extend motel stays.

“We haven't heard yes, yet," Weinberger said Monday. "I would not say this detailed plan in this form with these estimates has been explicitly rejected by the state, either, at this point.”

Correction: During this conversation, guest Sarah Russell noted that some households experiencing homelessness were relocated out-of-state when the motels in Chittenden County hit full capacity. In fact, some households were relocated to other counties, but not out of state.

Broadcast at noon Tuesday, June 6, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra worked on Vermont Edition as a producer and editor from 2022 to 2024.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.