Housing advocates plead with state officials to modify motel program

Published: Sep. 17, 2021 at 5:46 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Hundreds of homeless Vermonters could be back on the streets in just a few days. That’s because many of the people staying in motels and hotels under the general assistance emergency housing program will lose their benefits. Now, housing advocates are pleading with the state to change the eligibility rules before it’s too late.

“It really mentally takes a toll on a person. You can’t sleep good at night because you wonder tomorrow are you going to get the call -- ‘you got to go,’” said Cathleen Marsha, who has called Berlin’s Hilltop Inn home for the past few months.

She’s terrified by next week she’ll have the rug ripped out from under her and forced to seek shelter under Barre’s bridges. “That’s no way place... We’re not animals,” she said. “We’d be able to take what’s on our back, pretty much what would fit on my walker.”

Marsha suffers from severe back issues, among other health conditions, but she suspects the government won’t grant an extension on her stay. A law passed in June gives eligible applicants up to 84-days of emergency housing. Only people with severe disabilities and families with children are eligible for an additional 30-day voucher. And next week that three-month clock will run out for about 550 families, two-thirds of the total households currently in hotels.

“We’ll see pregnant women, seniors, people with serious medical conditions that leave them really immunocompromised are going to be out on the streets and with no place to go,” said Jessica Radbord with Vermont Legal Aid. She wrote the letter to Department for Children and Families pleading for more time, arguing the Act 74 rules are outdated. “The general assistance emergency housing program rules were negotiated in April 2021, and circumstances have changed dramatically since then. The pandemic is not over.”

DCF Commissioner Sean Brown on Friday told the Joint Fiscal Committee the state will hand out $2,500 cash to those exiting the program. While FEMA would supply 100% of the funds to house the homeless through the end of this year, Brown says money isn’t the problem. “We simply do not have the motel capacity to extend households beyond the 84-day limitation,” he said. Brown says many hotels will need those rooms for leaf peepers visiting Vermont in the coming weeks

Legislators expressed deep concern, insisting that vital housing for hundreds of Vermonters will sit empty until tourists fill them. Many implored DCF to make a different plan. Still, Brown points to the state’s historic multi-million dollar investment towards shelter expansions under ACT 74.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: But will those beds be available by next week?

Sean Brown: Well, you know, with these funds, that’s why we want to provide these funds, so that people have the resources to either rent a room from family or friends or pay for permanent housing.

State legislators say affordable housing doesn’t exist right now and so that’s not a viable option for most of Vermont’s homeless.

Burlington is under the greatest pressure. Shelter leaders say they’re already overwhelmed and next week expect it to get far worse. Every night, dozens of people line up at the Champlain Inn to snag a spot. And every night at least five to 10 are turned away. COTS, on the other side of Burlington, faces the same challenges.

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