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For Emergency Housing, State Seeks Alternatives To Motel Voucher Program

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Requests for emergency housing almost doubled last winter, and now communities across the state are beginning to consider permanent and emergency winter homeless shelters as the state looks to cut down spending on its motel voucher program.

The Department for Children and Families sent out a memo in August asking local housing advocates to come up with alternatives to using motels for emergency housing.

The department wants to cut down on its motel voucher program for the homeless and the memo led to a wide range of responses as communities across the state begin to discuss where permanent and emergency winter homeless shelters should be located.

In Rutland, Mayor Christopher Louras says the city's not ready to support a warming shelter proposed for a building near a downtown shopping plaza.

In Morrisville plans are moving forward and advocates there hope to have a permanent shelter open this winter.

And in St. Johnsbury, as meetings got underway, the select board approved a zoning bylaw amendment that restricts where temporary overnight shelters can be located.

Department for Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz says there's recognition in each community that something new has to be done.

At the same time, though, Schatz acknowledges that in some cases it'll take some time to bring together housing advocates, municipal governments, business owners and residents to find the locations for the shelters everyone can agree on.

"We're working with communities all over the state to try to increase the availability of other places to meet the emergency housing needs of individuals and families," Schatz said. "What we've seen in certain communities is that there are challenges where, where's the right place for the right type of facility to be?"

Requests for emergency housing almost doubled last winter and the state spent about $4.2 million on the motel voucher program during the 2015 fiscal year. 

Now the state wants to find other ways of spending that money, and lend support to local efforts to establish permanent and emergency winter shelters.

"Hopefully in the near future we can be in a place where it's a community-based effort rather than a regulatory scheme to meet the needs of the homeless individuals and families." - DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz

Schatz says the solution will look different in each town or city, and discussions were started to make sure there's buy-in as DCF moves away from relying on the motel voucher program.

"What we're doing is working with communities this winter to try to set up the alternatives, so that hopefully in the near future we can be in a place where it's a community-based effort rather than a regulatory scheme to meet the needs of the homeless individuals and families," he said. "So it is moving forward incrementally."

Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the Economic Services Division of DCF, says the state wants to develop an entirely new model for serving homeless individuals and families.

As the costs exploded over the past few years there was recognition that the motel voucher program was unsustainable.
 
At the same time, Brown says it's more efficient to deliver mental health and substance abuse counseling, job training and other supports when people are in one central location.

The emergency housing program only has $2.3 million in the current budget, and DCF officials will likely be looking for additional funds during the budget adjustment process this winter.

And that, he says, makes it more likely that people will eventually be able to move out of the shelters and into permanent housing.

"What's our long-term vision? How can we restructure this program?" said Brown. "How can we build support for this and design this and then approach the Legislature with a comprehensive plan saying, 'This is how we want to change things statutorily and programmatically' and 'This is what that budget will look like to do that work,' and then have that discussion with the Legislature? We're not at the place to do that right now but we hope to be in the future."
                              
Meetings will continue through the winter as communities debate and develop proposals to establish new shelters.

"This would be a fundamental change so you really want to make sure that there's complete support for it," Brown said. "Also I think the other key piece is what you're seeing with these some of these discussions, is that these communities are ready to move forward with those plans as well, and sometimes that can take a little longer to work through."

Brown says the emergency housing program only has $2.3 million in the current budget, and DCF officials will likely be looking for additional funds during the budget adjustment process this winter.

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