By Tiffany Tan/VTDigger
Since June, Rutland’s mayor Mike Doenges has been speaking with state officials about a plan to ease homelessness. He’s seeking millions in state funding to construct up to 50 transitional homes in the city within the next five years.
The single-story housing units would be built in one, to-be-determined Rutland location, where residents could get comprehensive support services, according to the plan summary from Mayor Mike Doenges. It says the project aims to promote stability, independence and connectivity for unhoused people with critical needs, such as physical and mental health issues, substance use disorder and those recently released from prison.
“The focus is on the most vulnerable population,” Doenges said in an interview at his office last week, pointing to diagrams of his proposed housing campus. “Give them the next step up.”
Doenges pitched the housing idea to the Vermont Department for Children and Families on June 1, after it solicited proposals for community projects that would tackle the problem of homelessness.
The mayor estimated the Rutland housing campus would cost $16 million for the first five years: $11.3 million to build the homes, and the rest to operate the program.
He hopes the state will shoulder that cost.
In May, Vermont lawmakers allocated $12.5 million for plans to transition people out of the state’s emergency housing program at motels. Chris Winters, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, said the agency plans to lean on that pot of money to fund the homelessness-related community projects.
But Rutland has plenty of competition for that money, as Vermont tries to figure out how to solve a chronic homelessness problem. The project is among 31 community proposals the department is pursuing out of 59 it received, according to a July report.
The Department for Children and Families has been talking with the Rutland city government about the housing and shelter component of Doenges’ proposal, said Sarah Phillips, director of the department’s office of economic opportunity. She said the project is “in the very early stages of development,” and the department is working to provide funding for planning and coordination.
“We were glad to see Mayor Doenges’ leadership in proposing concepts to expand housing and shelter in Rutland, which is clearly needed,” Phillips said in a written statement on Wednesday, Aug. 30. “We look forward to continuing to work with the City and Mayor as the project evolves.”
As of Aug. 28, according to DCF data, 929 households in Vermont were placed in a motel through a continuation of the state’s pandemic-era emergency housing program. A quarter of the total beneficiaries, or 236 households, were in Rutland County.
That’s a big drop from the 484 Rutland households that held motel vouchers on May 31, a day before the state started tightening the eligibility criteria for temporary emergency housing. The program had been expanded during the Covid-19 pandemic, using an infusion of federal dollars that are no longer available.
Still, Rutland County remains the area with the largest proportion of people in the program, which was costing the state $8 million a month as of May.
Up to 50 transitional homes
The Rutland proposal involves creating a local housing campus with up to five neighborhoods, each with 10 one-story prefabricated homes, according to Doenges’ June 1 memo to the Dept. for Children and Families.
One neighborhood would be created each year, with a dedicated house for staff that would double as space for support services and meetings.
Support for residents would include health care services and case management, in areas such as finding jobs and obtaining treatment. To promote substance use recovery, drugs and alcohol wouldn’t be allowed in the community.
Doenges envisions the first 10 housing units being ready for occupancy in the summer of 2024 — if the land can be acquired in September and a design for the campus started.
He emphasized that the transitional housing units are meant to be short term, an opportunity for residents to develop stability and self-sufficiency. “Give them a place that’s not a short-term hotel to live while they’re getting the skills that they need,” Doenges said.
State Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, lauded Doenges for offering an idea to help solve the homelessness problem in the county and the state. Collamore, who is in his fifth term as a state legislator, said getting state dollars to pay for the project would be the challenge, but he hopes other lawmakers will recognize the huge need in Rutland County.
“My view is, if there will be funding available, I think Rutland County should be at the top of the list,” Collamore said.
Collamore and Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, D-Middletown Springs, were among the Rutland-area legislators who listened to Doenges discuss the housing proposal at a presentation in July.
Chesnut-Tangerman, vice chair of the House Committee on General and Housing, supports the plan, noting that it would house families in one unit rather than as part of a congregate setting. He also believes the comprehensive support services will benefit residents long term. He said area legislators advised Doenges to remain transparent with the public and fellow officials about the progress of the housing project. “No surprises here,” Chesnut-Tangerman said the mayor was told. “Build support as you go.”
Doenges said the city government’s role is to help bring together the project components: funding, location, contractors, service providers and housing staff.
He said he has found a couple of potential sites whose landowners are open to selling. And local groups could help implement the vision, such as the Housing Trust of Rutland County, Rutland Housing Authority, Homeless Prevention Center, the social service organization BROC Community Action and Rutland Mental Health Services.
“There are many moving pieces,” Doenges said. “I’m acting as the coordinator.”