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Helping the homeless

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

On bitter cold nights homeless shelters fill up. The Red Cross and several churches are considering opening temporary shelters for additional help.

But when no one showed up to stay at emergency lodging on Pine Street in Burlington last week, churches, such as North Avenue Alliance, put shelter plans on hold until more questions are answered.

"What happened? What didn't work? Why didn't people go? Because we don't want to create this alternative system if people aren't going to use it," said Martha Maksym, Executive Director United Way of Chittenden County.

An answer to why people didn't show up may have to do with restriction changes on a state-funded program. If it's snowing and temps dip below 32 degrees, the state will pay for anyone with a valid drivers license to sleep in a hotel. It cost taxpayers $2.2 million last year alone.

"I don't think we should assume that everyone is abusing the motel system. I think it is a really important option for us to have as a last resort, but I think we really need to understand more. The numbers are skyrocketing in the amount the state is spending-- it's not a good investment in state dollars," Maksym said.

Right now, it costs the state anywhere from $40 to $130 a night per person for a hotel room. That cost is triple what the Committee on Temporary Shelter receives in state funding-- $17 a night.

Advocates for the homeless believe the focus should be on long-term initiatives.

"I don't think anyone believes that hotels, and the cost of them, are the answer to the homeless crisis. But for now they are a short-term fix while we move forward with a lot for strategic prevention initiatives," said Rita Markley, the executive director of COTS. "Do we want to pay $100,000 a month for these 10 families in motels? Do we want to pay at that end? Or, is it a better investment to stabilize them on the front end?"

There is a proposal to be introduced at the Statehouse that aims to move state funds from those hotel vouchers to preventive programs to help families stay in their homes, off the streets, and out of hotels.

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