As COVID-19 case numbers decrease and the vaccination rate continues to rise, Vermont's Agency of Human Services is moving forward with a plan to wind down the use of hotels and motels as shelter for those who don't have permanent housing.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman, who has been following Vermont’s efforts to find housing for residents experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: So remind us what happened at the start of the pandemic and how so many people ended up moving into motels in the first place.
Howard Weiss-Tisman: One of the first things we learned about the coronavirus is that the worst thing was for people to be together. And, of course, overnight shelters and day shelters and even meal sites just, you know, became the worst place for people to be.
So early on in the pandemic, the state realized that – that they needed to shut down the overnight shelters and the day shelters. The only real option was moving people into motels and hotels. And that's what happened back, you know, more than a year ago.
At its busiest, more than 2,000 people were housed in more than 75 hotels around the state. It's cost the state more than $40 million. A lot of that's been paid with federal money. Everyone's just recognized that it's just not sustainable to keep doing that. So they've been looking for a way out of it.
And this wasn't entirely a new idea – the state has used motels for a number of years to house some people who are experiencing homelessness, right?
Yeah, right. They mainly used it as an emergency option during the winter. And so, during the very cold months of the year, they put people up.
During the warmer months, they had the emergency housing, so that victims of domestic violence ended up in hotels, motels. And if someone had a catastrophic loss of fire, they were also put up in motels. But it's really never been to this extent.
According to the state, you know, at its busiest during the winter, they had about 300 motel rooms in use. And as I said, you know, we're up to over 2,000 now. So it's really been a big change.
Yeah, and also there was, of course, more hotel space, as those are mostly shut down initially in the pandemic. So now, Howard, last week, the Agency of Human Services gave its plan to lawmakers explaining how they want to make a transition away from relying on motels. So what do we learn from that new report?
So the main thing we learned is that the state's going to try to kind of make this a transition year and do this slowly.
The state's changing its criteria for handing out motel rooms, but they still expect about two-thirds of the people who are in motels now will continue living there. This is what Geoffrey Pippenger, who's with the Department for Children and Families, said:
“We really need to transition from the crisis response to the pandemic to a more sustainable system of care.” – Geoffrey Pippenger, Department for Children and Families
Because the state also found out that, you know, they're going to lose a lot of these motel rooms as the state shifts back to its tourist economy and the state opens up.
And so, on July 1, everyone in the program is going to have to reapply under this new criteria.
OK, so what's that new criteria going to be?
They're going to let families that have kids under 18 and households with people over 60 … continue to be allowed to stay. Folks that are on disability and veterans are going to be able to stay in motels. And also, you know, people that do have emergencies that lost their housing either due to fire or to not being able to pay their rent.
So the state expects about one-third of the folks who are there now will not be allowed. But that still leaves about 1,300 people who will continue staying in hotels, probably through next year.
So tightening some of that eligibility, that doesn't exactly sound like a very long-term solution. So are there other efforts to provide more permanent housing situations?
The governor wants to spend about $90 million on 600 affordable rental units.
He's also talking about putting $12 million into new shelter beds – he's hoping to build about 150. And that work, they hope they can get done in the next year, year-and-a-half, to directly address what's going to happen as they shut down this program.
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