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Reporter debrief: Why the Scott administration reversed course, agreed to emergency motel housing through March 1

A photo of a sign reading the hilltop inn next to a vine-covered metal fence
Elodie Reed
VPR File
The Hilltop Inn in Berlin was among the motels providing emergency housing to Vermonters during the pandemic.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Scott administration announced a major change to its emergency housing program. Starting Nov. 22, all Vermonters experiencing homelessness will gain access to free motel housing until at least March 1.

The decision follows a months-long debate over Vermont's emergency housing policy.

VPR’s Liam Elder-Connors spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Liam Elder-Connors: So Pete, housing advocates — including two who've been camping outside of the Statehouse for the last month — have been calling on Gov. Scott to expand the motel housing program this winter. How are they responding to this latest news?

Peter Hirschfeld: Well, those two advocates you mentioned Liam are named Brenda Siegel (whose name may be familiar to folks as a Democratic candidate for governor in 2020) and then Josh Lisenby, who's a 47-year-old Vergennes resident who's experienced chronic homelessness over the course of his life. They — along with lots of other housing advocates, clergy members, a few dozen Democratic lawmakers — had been calling on the governor to provide motel housing this winter for anyone who needs it.

Brenda Siegel and Josh Lisenby held a press conference on Thursday. That was the morning after the Scott administration announced that any income-eligible Vermonter experiencing homelessness would get housing this winter. And Josh Lisenby characterized this as sort of a qualified victory.

“We have shown that together Vermont, Vermonters do have a voice, we can make the change that we want to see,” he said. “Why there needs to be perpetual fights about housing humans through the winter, I will never understand. But I will also never give up that fight.”

To be clear, they expect that fight to pick up in relatively short order. There are a lot of outstanding questions about what happens to the homeless population in Vermont once this winter housing program hits its March 1 deadline. And advocates feel like this is a moment they can leverage to change in some pretty fundamental ways the way Vermont approaches homelessness.

Well until this week Pete, Gov. Scott had voiced concern about expanding this emergency housing program. What were his objections, and what changed?

This debate we're talking about began in earnest back in July. That's because during the pandemic, Vermont opened up motels to virtually anyone who needed one. In July, though, the Scott administration scaled back those pandemic-era eligibility guidelines. And that resulted in about 1,000 people being exited from motel rooms that they'd been staying in long-term during the pandemic. And that's when the Scott administration had to start defending this change.

More from VPR: 'No Place To Go': As State Of Emergency Ends, So Does Stable Housing For Some Vermonters

First, they said the money was the problem. Then they said, “Well, you know, money isn't really the issue, because we do have these federal funds.” But they said motel capacity was a problem. Then a couple of weeks ago, Phil Scott said, a big reason we don't want to put folks in motel rooms is because it isn't going to help them transition to a place of housing security. And then he also said that this motel housing program during the pandemic had caused some real quality-of-life crime issues for cities and towns.

And here's what he had to say about that at his briefing a couple weeks ago:

Rutland, as you remember, shut down one or two motels as a result of all of the activity that was happening,” Scott said.

What compelled the governor to changed his mind on this Liam and grant this expansion that the advocates have been calling for is unclear right now. There was a lot of pressure on his administration to change course, so that could have been a factor.

But the federal government alsoannounced earlier this week that FEMA funding would be available to reimburse states for emergency housing through April of 2022. So perhaps that figured into the decision as well.

And this expansion only lasts until March 1. And so what's the plan for Vermonters experiencing homelessness after that date?

That's going to be the subject of a lot of debate over the coming legislative session. There are going to be lawmakers and advocates who want to keep this expanded program in place until the state has more permanent housing options.

Recall Vermont is using $250 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to build affordable housing units. But those units aren't going to be fully built out for years, probably, which leaves the question of what to do in the meantime. Federal funding for emergency housing is not going to be around forever, and so lawmakers and the governor are going to have to make some big and potentially controversial decisions about the future of housing policy in the state as it relates to people who are currently unhoused now.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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