'No Place To Go': As State Of Emergency Ends, So Does Stable Housing For Some Vermonters
Updated 7:45 p.m. 6/15/2021
Gov. Phil Scott says an executive order he signed Tuesday will allow Vermont to continue drawing down federal aid even after the state of emergency lifts, but advocates for low-income Vermonters say they remain concerned about the loss of housing and food aid for vulnerable residents.
On Monday the governor lifted all remaining COVID-related public health orders, and starting Tuesday at midnight, Vermont will leave a state of emergency for the first time in 15 months.
Not everybody is celebrating the pandemic milestones, however.
“Right now, as many Vermonters are ready to go out and celebrate, at this very moment there’s tremendous anxiety, because that safety and security and support system is going to end, we think, along with that [emergency] order,” said Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action. The organization spearheaded food and housing supports for vulnerable Washington County residents during the pandemic.
Minter said those concerns stand even after Scott announced post-emergency transition plans that include $2,500 grants for people whose emergency housing vouchers will expire on June 30.
While older Vermonters, people with children and people with disabilities will be allowed to remain in emergency motel housing for at least another three months, more than 700 people will have to depart their state-funded hotel rooms effective July 1.
“I did not hear details today that make me less worried today about the people who in two weeks need to have a different place to go,” Minter said Tuesday.
"Right now, as many Vermonters are ready to go out and celebrate, at this very moment there's tremendous anxiety, because that safety and security and support system is going to end, we think, along with that [emergency] order." — Sue Minter, Capstone Community Action
Both Minter and Vermont Food Bank CEO John Sayles said the Scott administration deserves high praise for ramping up housing and food supports during the pandemic. But they both fear that the end of the state of emergency will prompt a scaling back of state support for basic needs as lower-income Vermonters struggle to rebound from the pandemic.
“And the elimination of the emergency order just kind of increases that uncertainty in some areas,” Sayles said Tuesday.
Minter said she’s especially concerned about long-term residents in motels such as the Hilltop Inn in Berlin, where approximately 45 people receiving emergency housing vouchers have already been informed they’ll have to leave by the end of the month.
At the Hilltop, there’s a fancy backlit desk where a receptionist would usually check people in. No one stands behind that desk these days, though, because the lodging facility is occupied exclusively by people who’ve received emergency housing vouchers from the Agency of Human Services.
Most of the people staying at the Hilltop have been there for months. There are fights and drugs and drama for sure, but also lots of new friendships, and a budding sense of community.
“I’m a lot of different things. I do makeup for people so they can feel a little encouragement, things of that nature,” said Dondre "Panda" Wellington, who moved into his room about two months ago. “I’m trying to really uplift you, but I’m also going to be direct and honest with you.”
Wellington has been in Vermont since last May, when he decided to move here from Atlanta, Georgia.
“I wake up, open my windows, I see purple-blue sky, nice things,” Wellington said. “This is a beautiful place.”
As of June 30 though, Wellington will have to leave the Hilltop. Not because he has a place to stay, but because the expanded eligibility criteria for emergency housing that Scott instituted during the pandemic is set to expire then.
Wellington said he’s confident he’ll be able to figure things out for himself.
“I have been able to meet certain people, really good people, that will offer me a place to stay – help, homes, and things of that nature,” he said.
What worries Wellington, he said, is the fate of the several dozen other people at the Hilltop who’ve also been told they’ll have to leave.
“Most people here are getting miserable and terrified about the fact that they don’t know how to do for themselves,” Wellington said. “Like, all I keep hearing is people are going to pitch tents in places that, they’re not really safe. They’re not really habitable.”
"Most people here are getting miserable and terrified about the fact that they don't know how to do for themselves. Like, all I keep hearing is people are going to pitch tents in places that, they're not really safe. They're not really habitable." — Dondre "Panda" Wellington, Hilltop Inn guest
Mass displacements like the one planned at the Hilltop are set to take place across Vermont as the Scott administration winds down a policy that was designed to get people out of congregate shelters, and into more COVID-safe living environments in hotels.
Right now, 2,000 or so Vermonters are receiving emergency motel vouchers. Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith has said about half of them will lose those vouchers when the eligibility guidelines change.
It’s an unsettling prospect for Barbara Jenne, an employee at the Good Samaritan Haven shelter in Barre who’s been running point at the emergency housing operation at the Hilltop for the duration of the pandemic.
“And I’m concerned that some of them may go out and become extremely depressed, and the potential for either the crime rate going up for survival, and/or the overdose rate because nobody’s there to monitor, or the suicide rate. That’s the downside,” Jenne said.
As of late, Jenne has been helping people create their “exit plans” for when they have to leave the motel. Those plans, however, often consist of finding a tent.
“A good portion of the people I’ve spoken with, their plans are, they’re already setting up camps or encampments,” Jenne said.
Minter said she feels a sad irony to all the happy public pronouncements over Vermont hitting its 80% vaccination goal.
“This is actually a re-traumatizing moment, where for a year they’ve had safety and security and support, and they’re about to lose it,” Minter said. “Their life is about to be back out on the streets.”
What happens when they hit those streets was the subject of a letter that Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault sent to administration officials last week.
“My concern is taking an already vulnerable and stressed population and putting them back out on the streets without necessarily having a well thought-out plan, or thinking through what the logistics of that look like,” Thibault said.
And Thibault said he fears the sudden transition will result in a “public safety tsunami.”
“People turn to drugs, alcohol, they turn to stealing, they turn to criminal acts typically out of desperation, not because they are inherently bad people,” he said.
"People turn to drugs, alcohol, they turn to stealing, they turn to criminal acts typically out of desperation, not because they are inherently bad people." — Rory Thibault, Washington County State's Attorney
Housing isn’t the only resource that might be in shorter supply as a result of the governor’s emergency order coming to an end. Numerous federally funded food programs, including one called Everybody Eats, may also see revenues dry up alongside the end of the order.
Rev. Beth Ann Maier, a deacon at the Christ Episcopal Church in Montpelier, is one of the faith leaders who’ve been administering various food programs during the pandemic.
“And the churches are confronted with the question of whether we can supply all of the food that we have been giving to people, and that they need, and we’re pretty sure we can’t,” Maier said.
Asked at a recent COVID-19 briefing why the state was tightening eligibility for the motel voucher system, Secretary of Human Resources Mike Smith cited cost as a driving factor. Keeping the emergency housing system in place as it’s been for the past 15 months, Smith said, would cost $106 million annually.
Maier said whether or not the state should muster the resources needed to keep the eligibility guidelines more expansive is “a moral decision.”
“Do we support the basic needs to Vermonters?” Maier asked. “It’s expensive. Yes it’s expensive. But we get to make the decisions about how we spend funds.”
For some long-term residents of the Hilltop, the stress of the looming June 30 deadline is building.
A woman VPR is referring to only as Georgia for safety reasons says the emergency housing voucher she got in January was a literal lifeline.
“I wouldn’t have any other option but to live in my car, and that broke down, so that would’ve been very miserable to be in a long winter situation without housing option,” she said.
But Georgia still doesn’t have transportation as of now, which means she can’t get a job. And while she’s in the process of trying to secure a stipend that could help her pay for a place starting in July, nothing’s come together yet.
Much like Dondre Wellington, Georgia is as worried about her new motel mates as she is herself.
“I’m concerned that they’re going to be on the street and – with no place to go,” she said.
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