Is Vermont's homeless hotels pandemic plan working?

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the homeless were largely housed in shelters like COTS, with some in motels. But now it's reversed, with nearly 2,000 of the state's homeless in hotels and motels and just a few in shelters. The reason? To keep people from congregating. We went to find out if that's working and at what cost.

"Some of the rooms, some of the people have been very clean and proper, and we've had other rooms where the room has been totally trashed," said Andy Cardinal, the facilities maintenance man at the Travelodge in South Burlington.

Vomit, cigarettes, drugs, blood, and more -- Cardinal has seen it all in the past six weeks. They're housing about 40 of the state's homeless -- during the pandemic. It was either that or close.

"If you didn't want to take people in, they shut you down," Cardinal said. "We could have probably all drawn unemployment but I choose to work."

Dozens of other hotels and motels around the state made a similar choice. But a few have told WCAX they're not sure they would do it again. They're worried about their safety. One manager told us about knives being drawn on her staff and other concerns that social workers weren't involved enough in the transition.

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz says he appreciates the lodgings stepping up. "The reality is that it is challenging for them. The risks, the concerns about the virus are significant, so they are making a significant contribution to our community by being willing to house this group of people," he said.

The state was housing 1,614 adults and 273 children as of Monday afternoon. They're paying about $117,000 per day* of federal money for about 1,407 rooms. While it sounds like a lot, it actually comes out to an average of just $11.88 a night.

Schatz says those prices are possible because the state in some cases was able to lease the whole building. What stood out to him was the increase in people identifying as homeless -- up by about 800. He thinks with the pandemic, some who were staying with relatives or friends had to leave.

"With the advice regarding COVID-19, they had to separate because those living environments were simply not safe," Schatz said.

If part of the program's goal is to keep people from congregating Cardinal says it's split whether people choose to follow that rule. "They'll pass the pipe around to everybody, pass the cigarette around to everybody," he said.

But Schatz says the numbers show it's working. "We have only seen one case of a person who is homeless testing positive for COVID-19. I think that's something the state of Vermont can be quite proud of -- that we've really taken care of this vulnerable population," he said.

DCF right now is working on a housing recovery plan to gradually transition people out of the lodgings and into other settings. Their goal is to substantially reduce the number of people in these settings in the next three to six months. But the commissioner also says he wants to come out of this with a housing solution that protects Vermont's homeless in the long term.

*Editor's note: The Agency of Human Services initially gave WCAX News data saying the homeless housing program cost $117,000 per week for about 1,400 rooms, which we reported on May 7. On May 8, we learned the cost they gave us was incorrect. It's actually $117,000 per day or about $819,000 a week. So instead of an average cost of $12 per room per day, it actually costs $83 per room per day.