On March 28, 2023

With state poised to scale back motel housing, an alternative has yet to materialize

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

For the past three years, the federal government has picked up the tab for state programs that now house about 2,800 people experiencing homelessness — 600 of whom are children — in motels across Vermont.

With federal funding for its Covid-19 pandemic-era motel programs nearly gone and Vermont’s rates of homelessness climbing ever higher, the vexing question before state budget writers in the Legislature is this: Now what?

Advocates are arguing forcefully that without alternatives for shelter, the state has no choice but to continue funding the programs at current rates. The Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, a collection of over 90 organizations, has asked for $72 million in next year’s budget to continue the program as is. 

“Until we have an increase in the supply of affordable housing, we need to be building bridges to housing, not cliffs into homelessness,” said Anne Sosin, VAHC’s interim director. 

But neither the Republican governor nor the Democratic-controlled Legislature have suggested they would sign on to any funding plans on that scale.

A mid-year spending package written by the Legislature to adjust the current year’s budget, which Gov. Phil Scott reluctantly allowed to pass into law, will continue to pay for motel housing with state funding through June 30 but begins to restrict eligibility a month prior on May 31. 

Roughly 1,800 households are currently living in motels. The Department for Children and Families estimates that 1,045 of those households would remain eligible under the new rules.

Scott, for his part, has argued unequivocally that Vermont cannot continue as it has been absent federal cash. But neither has he proposed reverting completely to the pre-pandemic status-quo. The governor’s proposed budget for next year includes $26 million, enough, according to officials, to offer anyone who needs one a motel room through the winter months.

House budget-writers are now at work on their draft of next year’s budget, which begins July 1. Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, who chairs the chamber’s Human Services Committee, said the panel is recommending to colleagues in the House Appropriations Committee that they set aside enough money to keep anyone meeting new eligibility requirements housed year-round, in addition to Scott’s proposal to relax eligibility during the winter. 

An initial $29 million figure recommended by the panel has been heavily criticized by advocates, who say it would put upward of 2,000 people at risk of losing their shelter. But Wood stressed that the actual dollar amount attached to her panel’s recommendations were still in flux.

“What we are trying to do is to signal to the community that we are going to increase base funding in the (motel) program beyond what it has been pre-Covid. And that’s all I can say at this point in time,” she said. “I don’t know what the final numbers are going to be.”

Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, who took the lead on the human services’ panel work on emergency housing, said she did not expect the total number to budge upward much. She conceded it likely would not be enough to keep newly prioritized populations sheltered year-round. But she argued the hotels already were not adequately addressing the needs of unhoused Vermonters.

“We know that the hotels are not the ultimate solution at the end of the day,” she said. “It is a challenge to not have an administration that is coming forward with a more robust plan on how we are addressing homelessness.”

Largely thanks to congressional aid packages, the state has already plowed nearly $340 million into affordable housing since the start of the pandemic and another $166 million into motels between March 2020 through the end of 2022.

But the latest federal figures show that Vermont has the second highest per-capita rates of homelessness in the country, behind only California. And for now, the problem appears to be getting worse — not better. 

The number of Vermonters becoming unhoused outpaced those exiting homelessness in 2022. According to figures compiled by the Agency of Human Services, 2,400 households became homeless that year, while 2,200 found housing. 

Colby Lynch, a resident of one of Barre’s motels, fell into homelessness in 2021, despite both she and her partner working as home care providers at the time. After a weekslong stint in their van, they secured a room at the Quality Inn, where they’ve now been for a year and half.

“If there were housing units available, then we would be in one right now,” Lynch said at a Statehouse press conference held last week by the Vermont Interfaith Action. “Vermont has no housing safety net.”

She and her partner also find themselves in a catch-22, according to Lynch. If they find housing, they have to demonstrate that they can afford it. But while they both still work, they’ve had to give up their old — and better paid — jobs to stay under the income requirements of the motel voucher program currently keeping a roof over their heads.

“We see signs that everywhere is hiring … But not having homes available to rent is impacting folks’ ability to apply for these jobs,” she said.

And the motels, while sometimes offering substandard — and expensive — accommodations, remain Vermont’s most significant source of shelter. About 80% of the estimated 2,000 homeless households in Vermont relied on motels for shelter in 2022, according to data collected as part of the federal government’s annual point-in-time count each January.

Motels aside, there are only a little over 600 shelter beds or emergency housing units in the entire state of Vermont, per figures compiled by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness. For every one shelter bed in Vermont, about 10 people reached out to the state for emergency housing needs last year, according to the group. 

“There’s very modest, if any, capacity to absorb folks who are getting ready to move out of the hotels,” said Martin Hahn, the group’s executive director. 

If shelter space is full or scarce in most places, it is entirely nonexistent — save for hotels — in some of the poorest regions of Vermont.

“At present there is no emergency shelter in the Northeast Kingdom,” said Patrick Shattuck, the executive director of Rural Edge, a nonprofit affordable housing developer serving the area. “I mean there really are no alternatives.” 

Hahn said he received a call just last week from North Country Hospital in Newport, looking for a place to put someone they were about to discharge from their emergency room. He did not have an answer for them.

Lawmakers have already signed off on $2.5 million to help expand shelter capacity statewide, and are considering doing more. And as part of an omnibus housing bill, S.100, they also are mulling new rules that would prohibit municipalities from using zoning to impede the construction or operation of a shelter. 

But no proposal — even one pitched by advocates — would build enough to keep everyone off the streets in the short term. The coalition led by Sosin has asked lawmakers for $40 million to create alternatives to the hotels. That would help convert some congregate shelter settings into non-congregate beds and create 60 new shelter beds and 60 new efficiency apartments, the group estimates. 

Sosin freely acknowledges that isn’t nearly enough to meet demand if the motels are ramped down in any significant way, but she said that’s all coalition partners have the capacity to build right now.

“There are a lot of constraints to building and operating shelters,” she said. “We didn’t want a plan that was so ambitious that it couldn’t it couldn’t be achieved.”

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