Motel checkouts underway as judge denies effort to block closure of voucher program
MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A judge Thursday denied an injunction by Vermont Legal Aid to try to stop the state from ending its hotel-motel voucher program housing homeless Vermonters. It came as upwards of 700 people around the state who have been using the pandemic-era program packed up their state-funded rooms to find a new place to stay.
At the T-Bird Motor Inn in Shelburne, 35-year-old Jean Mitchell was packing up his belongings Thursday morning to leave his motel room. He said he’s packing light because he says he doesn’t know where he is going next.
Reporter Ike Bendavid: Where are you sleeping tonight?
Jean Mitchell: Probably on the street, probably in the grass.
Mitchell is a former refugee from the Congo and says he has been in Vermont since 2012. He doesn’t have a job and with the tight housing market, he can’t find an apartment. His motel room has been paid for by the state as a part of the pandemic emergency housing program. “Been waiting almost three months, four months, case worker never come see me,” he said.
Federal funding for the voucher program has run out and the state has not continued to fund it. On Thursday, 693 households will no longer be able to stay in the state-funded hotels and motels. Since the start of the pandemic, the state says the program has cost $190 million, at an average cost of $148 a night, or about $4,000 a month.
“Packed up all my stuff, put it in storage, and trying to figure out where to go next,” said Francis Walker. He says he has a job and is considering his options for where to go next. He says lawmakers dropped the ball. It’s the government. They could have made a better deal with them and used the other money to build permanent housing for all these people they want to invite to Vermont.”
Meanwhile, rooms are being cleaned and prepped for the next customer. Sue, a manager at the Countryside Motel in Shelburne, was busy cleaning rooms Thursday. She says some guests left the rooms in good shape while others were trashed. “It was spotless and now this is what I walk into,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, the state is trying to help people. But you can’t help them who can’t help themselves.”
With hundreds leaving their rooms Thursday, that leaves nearly 1,100 still in the program nervous about what’s next. “I mean, they are putting them out on the street. That means we are about to be there, too, next month,” said Jessica Provost. “People are going to be desperate. You do desperate things when you are desperate. You do things you normally wouldn’t do... The crime is going to be through the roof.”
On July 1, the state will resort to its pre-pandemic program with some expanded eligibility, including vouchers for people over 60; anyone fleeing domestic violence; extreme cold; disabled people; families with children and those who are pregnant; anyone who lost their housing because of health code violations; or natural disasters. That means most of the 1,100 who are in rooms past Thursday will be eligible for vouchers good for 28 days at a time. It still leaves people like Andre Jarvis wondering what comes next.
Reporter Ike Bendavid: Do you have a plan after next month?
Andre Jarvis: I do not if I can’t find an apartment.
“I have no idea. I’m hoping there’s a plan soon,” added Provost.
Many people we spoke with were disappointed about losing their housing, but Jean Mitchel was among those trying to stay positive. “Don’t give up... still having hope,” he said.
JUDGE DENIES INJUNCTION; CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT CONTINUES
In a 16-page decision, Superior Court Judge Timothy Tomasi Thursday sided with the Agency of Human Services, that the state should not have to continue funding vouchers as part of the hotel-motel program.
The class action case in Washington County Superior Court was brought by Vermont Legal Aid. During a hearing Thursday morning, lawyers for Vermont Legal Aid and the state sparred over if and when the pandemic-era housing program should wind down. “Our clients are harmed by the uncertainty they face which includes having no idea where they are going to be tomorrow,” Legal Aid lawyer Michael Benvenuto told the judge.
He argued that the state did not give due process to those being forced out of their rooms and some were only notified with a note slipped under their door. He also says the state did not go through the proper rule-making process to wind down the program. AHS has not clearly articulated what rules govern their eligibility or their termination from eligibility,” Benvenuto said.
But state lawyers argued they don’t have the money to continue the program, nor do they have the authority to extend it -- they said that’s up to the Legislative branch. “Now that the money and resources are running out, this is a policy choice from the Legislature to wind down those much more permissive programs,” said Vermont Solicitor General Eleanor Spottswood.
Tomasi in his decision to deny the injunction, pointed to lawmakers who have said emergency housing is not an entitlement. He also said lawmakers made the determination to end the housing benefits.
“I think there’s a lot of passing of the buck that’s going on and the courts are stuck having to deal with these difficult policy issues,” said Jared Carter, a professor at Vermont Law School. He says the judge’s decision flips the burden back onto lawmakers. “This puts the pressure and the ball squarely in the legislature and governor’s court to deal with this issue in a meaningful and sustainable way.”
Additional state funding for hotel rooms has also run out and there’s none in the budget as of right now. There is some $12 million for additional caseworkers and service providers who can use it to buy things like tents and outdoor equipment, but that money won’t start flowing until a budget is passed by overriding the governor’s veto, or building a new budget before July 1.
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