On May 31, 2023

As motel program winds down for unhoused Vermonters, state looks to out-of-state contractors for solution, staffing

 

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

With close to 3,000 unhoused Vermonters slated to leave a state-run motel program in two waves over the spring and summer and local shelters already full, the state is beginning to sketch out an emergency response — by looking outside Vermont’s borders for a solution.

The Agency of Human Services on Wednesday, May 24, released a request for proposals for emergency shelter staffing and services, with the goal of providing up to 1,000 shelter beds statewide. The state will prioritize congregate day and overnight shelters in Washington, Rutland and Chittenden counties, according to the request.

Skyrocketing housing prices has contributed to the state’s growing homelessness. The state’s request is the first public evidence that it is in fact contemplating a massive mobilization — one that could, if successfully enacted, more than double the state’s existing shelter capacity.

Separately, the Department for Children and Families reached out to local service providers on Monday to solicit “letters of interest” about support services, shelter expansions or outreach programs the state might fund. The department’s commissioner, Chris Winters, said Thursday those projects remain the priority. But local nonprofits have said for months that they have little capacity to scale up their services, and Winters characterized the request for proposals as a “contingency plan” in the event that large gaps in coverage do indeed emerge.

“We keep hearing there’s just no one to run these shelters — all these community action agencies are stressed out and fully tapped for all of their resources,” he said. “So one way that we could help them, or do it separately, is to have staffing come in. And that staffing might be from out of state.”

Winters acknowledged a significant amount of uncertainty about what might come out of the state’s open-ended request — including who might respond, or how much they might ask to charge. At the last minute, lawmakers added $12.5 million into next year’s budget to spend on a transition plan out of the hotels, and Winters said this is the pot of money the department is planning to lean on to fund the effort. 

Asked if this might be enough to cover a yearlong contract to deliver such services on this scale, Winters said he wasn’t sure.

“We don’t quite know the size and scope yet. And we don’t know what the bids are going to look like when they come in,” he said.

Winters also said that mobilizing the Vermont National Guard remains “on the table,” and under active discussion. But the Guard, like local shelters, he said, is “woefully understaffed.”

“They have a lot of vacancies in the National Guard — a lot less people than they used to have. And if we do call on the National Guard, it pulls them away from all the other good work they’re doing — lots of folks working as first responders or, you know, in health care,” he said. And running a homeless shelter, he added, “looks a lot different than temporarily housing someone in the middle of a disaster.”

Whatever new supports are stood up will need to go up within an extraordinarily tight timeline. Roughly 800 people will lose their eligibility for motel shelter on June 1. Another 2,000 people who qualified for an extra month of housing because of their age, disability or special circumstance, will follow on July 1. 

Whether or not to continue the motel program, which was dramatically expanded during the pandemic thanks to an influx of federal cash — now gone — has been the subject of fierce debate throughout the session. Progressives continue to pressure Democratic leaders to re-open budget talks to continue the program. While Gov. Scott insists that not only is the program unaffordable (costing $8 million a month or about $145 a day per room) but it is also not serving those in it very well. 

“When you consider many in the program are no better off than they were three years ago, after spending almost $200 million dollars, you can see why we might conclude there must be a better way,” Gov. Scott said in the weekly press conference May 26. “This may be one of the many reasons why Congress and President chose not to extend the programs, so states could return to a system of with clear eligibility, reasonable requirements, and sustainable funding. With that in mind, AHS has been working for months, reaching out to people in this program as we transition back to a housing program with a better connection to Vermont’s wrap around services which are among the most generous in the nation,” Scott concluded.

When asked about the criticism that the state’s effort was welcome but late, Winters said that administration officials hadn’t known “where the Legislature was going to land.”

“Everybody was talking about it coming to an end and then pushing it out for another three months, or another six months, or pushing it out for another year. And so there’s never been, you know, this inflection point of OK, it’s really ending right? Here’s how we enact the action plan,” he said.

Paul Dragon, the executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, said he understood that the state was in a “tough bind,” and needed to urgently expand shelter capacity. But he also expressed frustration that the state had not more diligently invested in such infrastructure before now.

“I’ve been testifying for the past three years — ever since I’ve been with CVOEO — on the need for additional emergency shelter space,” he said. 

Dragon added that what Vermont needs most is trauma-informed shelter space, with single-occupancy rooms, not congregate facilities. And he expressed some apprehension about who, exactly, might be inclined to answer the state’s call.

“And I guess my question would be: Are these nonprofits that are coming in? What’s their motivation?” he said. “Our correctional system is already privatized and we know that that has not had necessarily the best outcomes when we bring in outside contractors to do the work for Vermonters who are most vulnerable.”

Minors alone account for nearly 600 of the individuals living in motels.

Motels are currently sheltering an estimated 80% of the state’s unhoused population, and shelter providers up and down the state have made clear that they are already at capacity, with few realistic avenues for rapid expansions.

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