For the past year, the state of Vermont has used federal COVID relief money to give everyone who was experiencing homelessness a private room, in motels and hotels across the state. So what will happen to those 2,000 or so people when the pandemic ends?
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Vermont recognized that people in homeless shelters would be in danger of catching, and spreading, the coronavirus.
But now, as the COVID-19 vaccine roll out continues, the state is making plans to wind down the homeless motel program. The Department for Children and Families wants to begin telling folks in the motels this spring that they're going to have to move out.
Before October, the state says it will return to using motels, only for emergencies, like it was doing before the pandemic.
Josh Davis is the executive director of Groundworks Collaborative, the Brattleboro nonprofit the state is working with to run the motel program locally. He says there are currently 190 people in motels there.
“And where are folks going to go?” Davis asked. “Without having some sort of ancillary, or parallel plan around housing, it makes this extremely challenging.”
When state officials decided to spend the federal money on motel rooms, they effectively wiped out homelessness overnight. Davis says it’s tough now thinking about going back and sending people out into the street.
“I think what’s hard for me is that it’s a no-brainer when it’s a public health crisis," he said. "But then once the public health crisis recedes, we’re okay with people sleeping outside. We have said that that is OK. I mean, it’s really difficult to have people sleeping outside when we have beds that could be utilized. I mean we’ll close the motel, and people won’t be able to sleep there and the beds will sit empty. That’s hard. That’s really hard.”
Nick Luoma is one of the people in Brattleboro who's been living in one of the five motels the state money has been paying for during the pandemic.
“I've struggled with housing security pretty much my entire adult life, and it's just gotten worse over time,” he said. “And I've just struggled managing to hold down steady work and just be able to be as productive as I would like to be.”
Luoma says having his own room in the motel, where his stuff is safe and he doesn't have to share the space with a group of other people, has made it much easier for him to work on his own mental health and substance misuse issues.
And he's not looking forward to moving back out into the streets.
“If I were to get kicked out and there's no transition plan from the state for us to get housing, or transition into moving back outside, then I don't know what I'm gonna do,” Luoma said. “I mean, I don't really get a whole lot of say. I mean, I just have to keep doing the best I can with what I have.”
But pandemic or not, state officials say motel rooms were never supposed to be the answer to wiping out homelessness in Vermont.
The state is spending about $6 million a month on motel rooms according to Geoffrey Pippenger, who's with the Department for Children and Families. And more than $31 million has gone into the program since last March.
It’s just not sustainable to continue paying for rooms, Pippenger says.
“We understand that these are massive shifts,” he said. “And we also understand that we have a significant number of people being housed in motels right now. And we don’t want to create or exacerbate a humanitarian crisis by just stopping that at any point, so we want a transition plan.”
Over the past few years, the state has become more reliant on using motels to provide emergency housing when the weather’s cold, or when people are escaping domestic violence, or other emergencies.
And even before the pandemic, Vermont was trying to cut down on its use of motel rooms for people experiencing homelessness. The state was just about to make major changes to the program to try to prevent so many people from ending up in motels when COVID hit.
Even though most of the people experiencing homelesness are now in motels, Pippeneger says there is still a housing crisis in Vermont.
“I understand that some folks may argue that we’ve ended homelessness by housing the number of people we’ve been housing in motels. But our position is that’s temporary, right?” Pippenger said. “We end homelessness when we find permanent places for people to be.”
Pippenger says the state is committed to moving ahead with the massive shift that was on the table before COVID to make changes to the homeless motel program. That includes committing more money to long-term housing and shelters, letting local agencies control the motel voucher money, and providing more direct services when people do end up in motels.
The timing’s not great, Pippenger admits, to try to make this shift away from using motels while thousands of people are in motels right now.
“At this point in time we’re tired, everyone’s tired,” he said. “People in motels are tired. People who’ve been providing services to folks in motels are tired. Policymakers are tired. You know, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic. And at the same time, what we know is that we can take an opportunity of looking at a system of care that had been antiquated prior to the pandemic, and to be able to move forward with a new model of delivering care to people. I think that’s really has a lot of potential and a lot of power to it.”
Paul Dragon is with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, which is running the largest homeless motel program in the state.
Dragon has had upwards of 150 people a night at a Holiday Inn in South Burlington, and he wants more flexibility to allow people to remain in the motels, until the state has a real plan to provide long term housing.
“When you house people like this, you save money in the end, because they’re going to the emergency room less, they’re hitting the court system less, and if we don’t do that, and all these people end up back on the street, or in congregate shelters, then in my mind we have not learned any lessons from this pandemic,” Dragon said.
The state says it will meet with housing advocates across Vermont in the spring and summer to try to make sure that the people moving out of motels have access to whatever local services are available.
The Agency of Human Services is also asking for additional money, about $2.4 million more than last year, to address the housing crisis.
We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.