BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – The state of Vermont will continue to offer hotel rooms to the homeless until the end of 2023 but the program, which has cost over $90 million over the past two years, will undergo some changes come July.
The demand for shelter skyrocketed during the pandemic — and so did the price tag. A decade ago, Vermont spent $1.4 million on emergency hotel vouchers for people displaced by disasters, domestic violence victims, and homeless people escaping the bitter cold. By 2019, that price tag had climbed to $6.9 million. After the pandemic hit, the program at its height provided 2,500 people with rooms at an average cost for each of the past two years of $45 million.
An example of the need for housing was seen in Burlington last year. For months, a sprawling, trash-strewn homeless camp grew on Sears Lane in Burlington’s South End. Some residents said they had nowhere else to go because of the region’s high housing costs. Others said they preferred life in the camp over-restrictive shelters and government programs. But the city in October said the camp was unsanitary and unsafe and ordered residents to leave. It took until December for the city to move in with heavy equipment and dismantle it.
Carol and Mitch, a couple that stayed at the encampment last year, say they have fond memories of the community. “They look at people from Sears Lane and judge them. Don’t look at somebody and judge them… you might have thought that a lot of them were bad apples – -they weren’t,” Carol said. “We didn’t need the cops. We didn’t need other people. We took care of our own in there.”
Since leaving Sears Lane, the couple has been living in hotel rooms in Colchester as a part of the state’s General Assistance Emergency Housing Program. They say they have been there since the encampment was torn down. While thankful for the help, they continue to fight an uphill battle. Carol is on disability and Mitch is unemployed. “The room’s being paid for but that doesn’t stop all the other expenses you still need to pay for to survive,” Mitch said.
“Even if they are paying for a hotel, you don’t have the money to pay for food,” Carol said.
Jennifer Monness has also been living at a hotel in New Haven. She is unemployed and a recovering addict. She says she came back to Vermont from Colorado during the pandemic and has been finding shelter in the state’s hotel program. “I appreciate all their help right now, especially because I’m not sleeping in my car and freezing to death. Any help is awesome right now,” she said.
Every corner of the state has a hotel participating in the state program. About 70 hotels have been participating this winter, all with similar stories of Vermonters in need of housing. That includes Stowe, where the Golden Eagle Resort, which normally caters to tourists, took advantage of the state’s average payments of $110 per room per night while the hotel was mostly empty during the height of the pandemic.
“As a business decision, it was a great business decision,” said Jamie Wolfe, the hotel’s manager. He says before the pandemic, they had never participated in the voucher program. “It allowed us to help Vermont. At the end of the day, we are all people and we are just trying to help each other.”
The voucher program later this summer will be transitioning back to pre-pandemic rules, which require emergency needs, such as nights with extremely cold weather. “While the GA Emergency Housing Program is going to revert back to its pre-pandemic rules on July 1 of this year, we are actually starting a new transitional housing program,” said Katarina Lisaius with the Vermont Department for Children and Families.
The transitional housing program will continue to house eligible people in hotels for up to 18 months. DCF says that will give the state more time to help meet the goal of finding long-term housing stability. “We know who is currently in the hotels and motels. We are directly working with them. In fact, some of our team is going to be at the motels in-person to help sign the paperwork to make this as seamless as a transition as possible,” Lisaius said.
Eligibility for the program will actually expand. According to DCF, an individual in Chittenden County earning up to $3,500 a month and experiencing homelessness could qualify. DCF estimates about 1,500 people are currently enrolled and will transition into the program. Funding will come from the $250 million in emergency rental assistance the state is getting from the federal government. DCF hopes to negotiate long-term rates with the hotels that are below the current $110 per night.
“It won’t be a night-to-night or if a room is available. You will have signed that occupancy agreement which is a relationship between the participant and the hotel owner to be able to stay there for a much longer period of time,” Lisaius said. “By having this transitional housing program, we see it as a bridge.”
Housing advocates think it can help give those in need time to focus on getting on their feet. “People who have been staying in motels won’t have to worry every 30 days — ‘Am I going to stay longer or am I going to have to find another place to be,’” said Rita Markley with COTS.
The new developments leave Monness and others with optimism to eventually get a place of their own. “I’m very happy, thankful. And I was like, ‘Dude, I will do anything they need to do to be able to stay,’” she said.
“It’s just a neverending battle. Everything costs money and I don’t make enough,” Carol said.
State officials admit the changes are a stop-gap effort to keep people off the streets while nonprofits and the private sector create more long-term housing solutions.
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