When Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in Vermont last month to combat the spread of coronavirus, officials moved quickly to make sure even people without homes could “stay home, stay safe.”
The homeless were moved off the streets and out of shelters — where it was virtually impossible to practice social distancing — and into motel rooms around the state.
The state is currently paying to house 1,700 homeless people, including more than 200 children. In Burlington alone, about 400 homeless people are living in motels.
Advocates have praised the initial state response as the right thing to do, both to reduce the chances of a deadly outbreak among a vulnerable population and to bend the curve of the pandemic for the state as a whole.
But what to do next remains an open question.
The current state of emergency ends May 15, and lawmakers and advocates alike are eager to hear how the administration plans to move from an expensive, short-term solution to a long-term one.
“We needed to do the right thing, and we did it,” Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) said in an interview. “Now, what’s the next right thing? Is it to give them a tent and let them go back to living on the street?”
Lawmakers may get a clearer answer to that question when Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, testifies Thursday and Friday about the state’s plan to transition people out of motels and into — hopefully — better living situations.
“I don’t think having a large number of people in motels rooms is a good state of affairs,” Schatz said in an interview Wednesday.
The state is not, however, going to simply cut off people’s motel vouchers if the governor lets the state of emergency expire May 15, Schatz said. The department is planning to extend the benefit that effectively lets anyone who needs a hotel voucher to get one, he said.
But the goal is to get people hooked up with the kinds of services, financial help or access to affordable housing that will gradually allow them to move from motels into a more stable housing setting, Schatz said.
He acknowledged that the state doesn’t have the capacity to quickly move 1,700 people into stable housing in the short term, but he said the state is working hard to move in that direction.
“It’s a substantial challenge,” Schatz said.
It’s also a substantial expense. The state is spending more than $3 million per month housing — and in many cases feeding — formerly homeless people in rooms that this time of year would normally be hosting tourists.
Because those funds are being spent to contain the coronavirus, Schatz said he’s confident federal funds will cover the expenses. But housing advocates argue that Vermont needs to spend more than $100 million in short-term rental assistance and affordable housing construction to begin tackling the problem.
“If it has not been clear before, it’s abundantly clear now that housing is health care, and we have to do something to house more people,” Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for the Champlain Housing Trust, told lawmakers during a House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee meeting Tuesday.
That figure includes $70 million for new construction, $23.5 million in rental assistance through the end of 2020, $10 million in housing subsidies and $4 million in additional social services, Donnelly said.
While those figures may seem daunting, Donnelly noted that the cost of housing people in motels is pretty steep, too. And he said his proposal accounts for just 8 percent of the $1.25 billion the state received from the federal CARES Act.
Whether anything approaching those kinds of figures will be approved by the administration or the legislature is far from clear. That’ll largely be up to the lawmakers in the legislative committees Schatz is addressing Thursday at 10 a.m. (Senate Economic Development Housing and General Affairs) and Friday at noon (House General, Housing and Military Affairs).
“As we come out of this pandemic, can we develop a better system for addressing the needs of the homeless? I hope so,” Schatz said.