Coalition asks Vermont officials to let homeless residents extend hotel stays

Robert Roffulo

Victor Guyette puts his supper away in the refrigerator in his room at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington in June 2020. About 600 homeless Vermonters are expected to run out their eligibility for the General Assistance Emergency Housing program on Sept. 22. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger While hundreds […]

Victor Guyette puts his supper away in the refrigerator in his room at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington in June 2020. About 600 homeless Vermonters are expected to run out their eligibility for the General Assistance Emergency Housing program on Sept. 22. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

While hundreds of homeless Vermonters face the prospect of losing their spots in motels around the state next week, a coalition of groups that work to support those experiencing homelessness have asked the state to let them stay longer. 

The state’s General Assistance Emergency Housing program gives homeless Vermonters vouchers to shelter in motels for 84 days as they look for permanent housing. Once the 84 days are up, residents can apply for 30-day extensions. 

This year, about 600 participants’ end date comes on Sept. 22. If their 30-day extension is denied, they’ll be kicked out. 

“My biggest concern is that we are scheduled to have the motel stay end for a pretty large number of people and there is no affordable housing for them to go into,” said Kara Casey, co-chair of the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness. “So where are folks going to go once they have to leave the motels?”

Casey’s concern essentially summarizes the content of a letter that 27 organizations working to support homeless Vermonters and the creation of safe, affordable housing in the state sent to Department of Children and Families (DCF) Commissioner Sean Brown earlier this week. In it, they asked the state to consider changing the 84-day limit on emergency motel stays. 

The letter focused on several reasons why DCF should revisit the 84-day rule, including the ongoing threat of the Delta variant of Covid-19, the lack of affordable housing in the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s commitment to paying for 100% of the program until the new year.

“Although historic investment is being made in both affordable housing development and development of additional shelter beds, none of these units or beds will be available by Sept. 23, 2021, when hundreds of households are scheduled to be terminated from [general assistance],” the letter said.

The authors of the letter, which include representatives from Vermont Legal Aid, the Homeless Prevention Center and Northeast Community Action, among others, requested the state give special consideration to at-risk participants — the immunocompromised, survivors of domestic violence, pregnant women and other sensitive groups. 

They also asked that the state pay market rates for hotel rooms to compete with tourists and provide an “essential payment” of $2,500 to anyone ousted from the program without a permanent place to stay, two requests commissioner Brown said DCF plans to honor. 

Participants in the program share coalition members’ concerns about the upcoming deadline. 

Kelly Manning, whose 84 days are up on Sept. 22, said his stress and anxiety over housing is overwhelming. 

“Living in the woods doesn’t work for me,” he said, perched on the side of his neatly made bed in his room at a Shelburne motel. “I go downhill really fast.” 

Kelly Manning sits in front of his room at a Shelburne motel last month. Photo by Lana Cohen/VTDigger

Manning has been in his room for months now and said he’s made it feel like home. In front of his room he has a tomato and basil plant. A little piece of wood he carved his name into is placed next to his door. Inside, button-down shirts hang neatly from tacks on the wall, a calendar is marked with doctors appointments and meetings with his housing worker, and some encouraging notes from friends are taped above his dresser. “Thank you for just being you,” one reads. 

Manning worries that soon he’ll have to leave and have nowhere to go. 

As the letter noted, many of the realities that led the state to expand the program during the pandemic still exist — an active virus and a housing and shelter bed shortage.

However, the state is not considering expanding eligibility or automatically extending the 84 days. It can’t, said Geoffrey Pippenger, former senior advisor to DCF commissioner Brown, who has been involved in the general assistance motel program throughout the pandemic. 

“We’re being limited by capacity issues,” said Pippenger.

With lockdown restrictions lifted across the country and the world, tourists are returning to Vermont, and they’re staying in hotels and motels, Pippenger said. 

“We are all concerned and are working together to find solutions to support Vermonters experiencing homelessness,” said Pippenger. “The letter is a follow-up to our ongoing collaboration, and we appreciate the members continuing to share their concerns and ideas.”

Tourist season hasn’t yet hit with full force, but it’s expected to soon. As the humid, hot weather of summer is replaced with a cool, crisp New England fall, outsiders are expected to flock to the state for leaf-peeping. Soon after, ski season will kick in, bringing in those who hope to find snowy mountains. 

“Historically that’s how our loss of rooms happens,” said Brown. “They shift to serve tourists, travelers and business needs.” 

But coalition members said there is no way the motel program will lose such a large chunk of rooms in one day, and that for as long as rooms are available, homeless Vermonters found eligible for the motel program should be able to stay in them. 

“Eighty-four days is an arbitrary time limit when motel space is still available,” said Jessica Radbord, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, in an email. 

Both state officials and coalition members also worry that rooms could ultimately become so limited that even Vermonters whose 30-day extensions get approved could be left with nowhere to stay. 

Manning has been looking for affordable housing in Vermont for five years now, he said. He said he is on housing lists in three counties and has in the past been forced to travel from county to county in search of an empty motel bed when rooms are short in the winter. 

An old back injury suffered on a construction job has made it difficult for Manning to find regular work.  

“My whole back just went together like a sponge,” he said. He said he has multiple herniated discs, bone spurs and chronic headaches. 

Being on Social Security disability benefits, Manning should qualify for a 30-day extension, but he still worries about ending up out on the streets when room capacity goes down. He said he’s hoping to find subsidized housing, but after looking for five years he’s lost most hope. 

He was recently taken off a waiting list for affordable housing in Lamoille County after forgetting to fill out a form, he said. He was also denied housing through the Burlington Housing Authority due to a 2019 aggravated assault arrest, despite the fact that he was never convicted. 

“I keep falling through the cracks,” he said of his years in the housing process. “All I’ve done for five years is fall through the cracks.”

The emergency housing program, which the state began in the late 1960s, is based on the idea that 84 days is a sufficient amount of time to find permanent housing. To remain in the program, participants must be in regular contact with a housing worker and actively seeking permanent shelter. 

But advocates argue that 84 days is not enough time to obtain housing, given current circumstances in the state. The most recent data from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, which is from 2019, shows that the rental vacancy rate is 3.4%. But two years and one pandemic later, the rate is believed to be even lower. 

Over the past eight months, prospective tenants in search of housing have submitted over 1,500 applications to the Champlain Housing Trust, the largest affordable housing landlord in Vermont. Durling that time, the housing trust had 50 vacancies, according to Chris Donnelly, director of community relations at the agency. 

The state allocated approximately $150 million for new housing through the American Rescue Plan Act and general fund appropriations in the 2021 legislative session. 

But that money will take a while to turn into homes. So although new housing units are going up across the state, many won’t be available for a year or two. Even then, only a fraction will be set aside for Vermonters experiencing homelessness. 

Although commissioner Brown said the state plans to provide $2500 in essential payment money to people ousted from the program, with such low housing availability, advocates question how people can use that money to put a roof over their heads.

There will be some immediate relief, said Gus Seelig, executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, giving the example of a 40-unit apartment building in St. Johnsbury slated to hit the market in October.

Still, only a limited percentage of those units, likely 15% to 20%, would be allocated for Vermonters experiencing homelessness. 

Longer term, the Champlain Housing Trust should have between 100 and 150 units coming online in the next 12 to 18 months, according to Donnelly. 

But some say the number of units planned to be built in the next few years does not match the need. 

“Even if 200 units go up in the year, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need right now,” said Kevin Pounds, executive director of the Burlington program Anew place, which runs three facilities.

Pounds is especially worried about the number of people exiting the motel program because of limited shelter capacity. 

Anew’s shelters have been exceeding occupancy every night, he said. “We’re set up to handle around 50 people a night. That was our original intention. But every evening we see around 55 to 60 people and are turning people away too.” 

Kevin Pounds, executive director of Anew Place, at the low-barrier shelter’s new location at the former Champlain Inn in Burlington on Wednesday, December 9, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Pounds said he worries that all the people exiting the motel program will mean more Vermonters forced onto the streets. 

“It’s not even cold yet and we’re already out of capacity at the shelter,” he said. 

Some current residents of the motel program don’t plan on going back into shelters. One participant in the program, who asked to go by Mindy, said if she has to leave on Sept. 23, she’s going to take her tent and camp out in front of the Statehouse. 

“I want them to know how bad it is,” she said. 

Separately from the letter, coalition members voiced their concerns over the state’s handling of Vermonters who indicate they have a disability. 

Back in August, Vermont Legal Aid and the Agency of Human Services settled a lawsuit that should have made it easier for disabled, homeless Vermonters to remain in the motel program by loosening eligibility requirements and streamlining the application process. 

But Legal Aid attorney Radbord worries that is not how it has turned out, saying that participants in the program are being held to an unreasonably high standard to prove their disability, resulting in the ousting of at-risk participants. 

“Even the most medically vulnerable may be subject to termination from the program because they simply weren’t aware that the department does not intend to extend benefits until they’ve completed a lengthy verification process,” Radbord said.

Coalition to End Homelessness co-chair Kara Casey said the entire situation is problematic.

“There’s a lack of housing on all sides,” said Casey. “Lack of motel housing, shelter space is limited, lack of affordable housing in general. It’s just a really tough situation. I think everyone is really doing the best that they can with the really hard situation they have.” 

Others take a less sympathetic view and believe the state could be doing more to support homeless Vermonters.

“The best thing the State of Vermont can do today is to extend reservations for people in the [general assistance] program past September 23,” wrote Radbord, adding that it needs “to pay motels the market rate, and to fund service providers adequately so that case managers and other staff can be paid a living wage with decent benefits.” 

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Coalition asks Vermont officials to let homeless residents extend hotel stays

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