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Lawmakers Approve New Rules On Motel Stays For Homeless

VPR-Homeless-20130823.jpg
AP/ Toby Talbot
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A legislative committee has approved a plan to roll back restrictions on how the state cares for homeless people.

The change reverses elements of an earlier proposal that had advocates worried that more people would end up on the street.

But a legislative hearing on the issue revealed concerns that the state has failed to address underlying issues of homelessness.

The hearing before the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules addressed what some on the panel said were the unintended consequence of budget cuts imposed by the Legislature.

The cuts reduced how much the state spends for homeless people to stay in motels on an emergency basis. The logic behind reducing the $4 million appropriation by more than half was that the money saved could be better spent on other services that would keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.

But advocates complained that the Shumlin Administration dealt with the budget cuts by proposing tough new restrictions on the motel stays.

This summer, the administration partially reversed course. And on Thursday lawmakers approved its revisions. Chris Curtis, a lawyer with Vermont Legal Aid, welcomed the changes.

“So this is a big, big improvement over what had been originally proposed by the department. So we’re happy for that. At the same time, we’re only partly down the road here,” he said. “We have got to address the issue of homeless in Vermont; we have got to address the problem of poverty in Vermont. And those issues are going to require some serious, serious policy lifting and some serious investment.”

Legal Aid and other advocates continue to object to part of the rule that requires homeless people to use half their income to reimburse the state for the motel costs.

Joe Patrissi is director of Northeast Kingdom Community Action, an anti-poverty agency. He questioned the logic of the reimbursement requirement.

“By definition they can only be eligible for this program if in the last 30 days they really don’t have any income,” he said. “So they’re supposed to pony up 50 percent of their disposable income and pay that toward the motel while they’re trying to get permanent housing? It doesn’t make sense. It’s not reasonable; it’s not logical. And it’s not helpful.”

The administrative rules committee also heard that hospitals are absorbing some of the costs of providing shelter for the homeless.

Chris Carpenter is manager of case management and social work at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington. Carpenter said when a homeless patient gets surgery for example, he or she may need a few days of recovery in a motel, not on the street.

But Carpenter said under the revised rules covering motel stays, the hospital is forced to pay for the emergency shelter.

“This is a fundamental change: shifting the responsibility for housing homeless Vermonters from the state to hospitals,” he said.

The new rules remain in effect until the end of November. It’s likely the Legislature will revisit the issue in January.

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier.