Amid growing criticism of an expensive state practice that houses homeless Vermonters in motels, the Department of Children and Families is floating a new proposal to slash funding to the controversial program. The idea? Cut funding entirely for single individuals, rather than families, who currently receive nearly half of the hotel vouchers dispensed by the state.
A proposal from Sen. Tim Ashe (Chittenden) would go even further; in legislation he plans to introduce later this week, Ashe is recommending dialing back motel spending entirely by July 1, 2015, and instead allocating the roughly $2 million Vermont spent on motel vouchers in fiscal year 2012 to a suite of other measures, including transitional housing, better case management for homeless individuals, and homeless prevention programs.
DCF's proposal, as Freese reports, could save the department $500,000 by tightening eligibility requirements. Families in need could still tap into the program, as could individuals classified as "vulnerable" or facing "catastrophes" — both terms that would need to be more clearly defined, but that could include people with disabilities or those facing domestic abuse.
It's a plan that so far worries Rita Markley, the director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter in Burlington (pictured). While she says she would be the last person to say that the overflow motels are an answer to homelessness, she worries about cutting funding to that program in the short term when it may be the only refuge for some people. She told Seven Days that she'd rather see the state focus on ways to improve accountability in the system.
"I’m concerned with any proposal that eliminates a resource based solely on a demographic, because you can’t determine need that way," says Markley. "Let's talk about a mechanism for assessing need, rather than simply removing benefits."
Ashe says the DCF proposal is, at the very least, a step in the right direction — but he adds that it's just a first step in what should be a more intensive effort to divert families and individuals from homelessness in the first place.
"I think there is an appreciation that the current program is not a coherent one," says Ashe. "It does not actually solve peoples’ real problems. All it does is address a one-night, two-night, three-night, 28-night concern, with little to show for it in return."
Ashe's plan would divert roughly the same amount spent in fiscal year 2012 — approximately $2 million — for spending on programs he said could do away with the need for motel vouchers altogether. He's advocating for taking half that amount, roughly $1 million, and building more transitional housing units where homeless individuals and families would have a place to stay in a more structured environment, with "wrap-around" services including housing counseling and job training. He'd divvy up the rest between better coordinated case management for people in shelters, and an effort to beef up homeless prevention through the state's existing housing authorities and other nonprofit housing providers. Though Ashe advocates for eliminating motel spending, he concedes the state should have enough flexibility to house someone in a motel if that's truly the only option.
"We’re trying to take a program that was created with the very best of intentions and rethink whether it is working, or what could we do differently," says Ashe. He suggests that Vermonters can take comfort in knowing that they're following Massachusetts' lead. Policy makers there have already announced a plan to do away with motel spending altogether. "We don't have to be on the so-called leading edge," he says.
(Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.)