Deadline looming for those in emergency hotel program

Published: May. 25, 2023 at 6:10 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

KILLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A deadline is looming for people living in emergency hotel rooms around Vermont. An estimated 730 households will lose access on June 1st after federal funding runs dry. The remaining 1,090 households -- considered more vulnerable -- will be sent packing on July 1st. So what happens to all of those people when the hotel doors close?

Housing people in need is something the state has done for years. Before the pandemic, the state had an emergency hotel voucher program that housed about 50 households in the summer for things like natural disasters, those fleeing domestic disturbances, and other emergencies. In the winter months, the program opened up to about 150 households in instances of severe cold. But since the start of the pandemic, when the state opened hotels to anyone in need, about 12,000 households have been served, with about 1,800 still using the program today.

Inside a motel room in Killington, Rex Winney is making the most of life without permanent housing. “Air fryer, hot plate - got a microwave in there,” Winney said during a tour of his room. “It’s not easy living -- it’s tough living, it’s tight quarters.”

Winney says he lost his apartment when his landlord decided to do something different. He’s on a fixed income and found few options in Vermont’s tight housing market that he could afford. “We couldn’t find a place and wound up in a motel,” he said.

But his time in this motel room is running out. With the federal funding gone and the state unwilling to pick up the tab, the transitional hotel program is set to expire at the end of the fiscal year on June 30th, leaving him and hundreds of others with questions about what’s next.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: Do you have a plan?

Rex Winney: I’m not sure...I’m feeling a little helpless out there looking every day for a place... You can’t just say the program is ending. We don’t have the money for it. “Everybody is going to be okay in a couple months” - that’s not the truth. It’s not going to be okay in a couple months.

Since the start of the pandemic, the state says they have spent over $190 million on motel rooms at an average cost of $148 a night.

Department for Children and Families Deputy Commissioner Miranda Gray says there was no measure of need for those seeking a room. Some people were staying in shelters, but others may have been living with family or friends. And there was no residency requirement. “If you come to Vermont and say that you have intent to stay here, you are considered a Vermonter per the rules,” she said.

Reporter Ike Bendavid: How has the state been paying this for so long?

Miranda Gray: It’s with the federal funding. I mean truly, that’s how the state was able to do it. And that’s why we are needing to transition now, because we don’t have that federal funding anymore.

Both the Scott administration and Democratic leaders in the Legislature agree that the hotel program is not financially sustainable, pointing to the long-term goal of more permanent, affordable housing that will be cheaper per month. “It would be more affordable because right now we spend, on average, just over $4,000 for someone to spend in a hotel room and that’s not what people are looking to spend, particularly in an apartment that’s subsidized,” Gray said.

But in the short term, Gray admits it’s unclear where the displaced people will go. “We know that some people plan to camp and we know some people plan to move in with a family member,” she said.

The Scott administration says it is working on a plan, but also acknowledges that some of the burden will fall on local communities to help provide shelter. But housing advocate and former gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel says it’s going to be a flood of people who will be in dire need of housing. “It is just a humanitarian crisis that will occur across our state,” she said. “They are going to end up in our streets.”

Siegel says the only solution currently available is for the state to continue to fund the hotel program. She suggests the state could dramatically lower the cost by negotiating lower prices for the hotel rooms. She worries about extreme consequences. “There are going to be people who die,” she said.

As for Rex Winney, he’s not sure where he’ll go when he leaves his Killington motel room. “Sometimes you gotta keep a little faith and keep plugging along, but I just don’t see a positive outcome,” he said.

A coalition of 17 Democratic and Progressive lawmakers have threatened to sustain a possible budget veto from the governor if lawmakers don’t add more money to keep the hotel program running.

Governor Phil Scott is expected to address the issue at a media briefing Friday.

Related Stories:

Coalition of 17 lawmakers threaten to sustain possible budget veto

Vt. House speaker delivers $8.5B budget early, ‘implores’ Scott to sign it

Can Democrats shore up votes to override potential budget veto?

Newsmaker Interview: House Speaker Jill Krowinski

Scott signals veto of $8.5B state budget

$74M Ed Fund surplus reducing property taxes

What Vt. lawmakers got done and what could still be ahead in veto session

Vermont Legislature passes state budget

Dems threaten to derail budget unless emergency housing money restored