Affordable housing officials say Vermont is in the midst of a homelessness crisis, complicated by a shelter shortage. And it's driving the need for costly motel vouchers sky high.
"We had to add temporary staff to deal with just the masses of humanity walking in the door. We don't have enough room in our waiting area," said Carol Flint of the Central Vermont Community Action Council.
Lawmakers anticipated spending $1.3 million on the motel voucher program this fiscal year. But now the administration says the cost will be closer to $3.5 million.
Flint recognizes that something's got to give. She just hopes that doesn't mean cutting the program altogether.
"We don't have the millions of dollars to backfill if the state cuts this program," she said. "What should I say to the people who are at my doors?"
Temporary housing's motel voucher program has been around for a decade. But it used to have greater restrictions designed for catastrophic situations, capping stays at 84 days. In recent years guidelines have loosened and some say that's contributed to the explosion.
"When there's an appropriate shelter bed available, you're not supposed to get a motel voucher," said Erhard Mahnke of Vt. Affordable Housing.
Mahnke says there will always be a critical need for motel vouchers. He hopes the abuses by some won't penalize an entire demographic.
"We're seeing in many cases, they just simply want a place for their friends to come hang out," South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple said.
Whipple paints a different picture of voucher recipients who brag about beating the system, waiting until shelters fill up to ask for help, getting multiple vouchers and even wanted criminals accessing free stays.
"There's been at least two now individuals who are wanted who called 211 for housing. We would much prefer they call 911 because we have housing pre-approved for them," Whipple said.
South Burlington Police describe the last six weeks as horrendous and say they've been called to the Anchorage Inn every single day to deal with problems caused by voucher recipients. The chief says this unintended fallout is tying up too many resources. Police responses to drugs, alcohol and domestic violence calls at the Anchorage Inn, University Inn and Ho-Hum Motel have nearly quadrupled in the last 13 years.
"We need to somehow have a rule structure that's got some teeth behind it, that says if you don't follow the rules then you're done," Whipple said.
Advocates argue the solutions are as complicated as the individuals seeking services and no cookie cutter cost savings plan will solve the problem.
South Burlington police say the majority of voucher recipients they encounter at area motels are Vermonters. State officials confirm they've provided 11 out-of-staters in the Burlington area with motel vouchers in the last five weeks.
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