Vermont Legal Aid filed a class-action suit on Monday to block changes to a state emergency housing program that advocates say would be devastating for homeless people with disabilities.
In a suit filed in Vermont Superior Court in Washington County, the organization argued that the Agency of Human Services' proposal to terminate benefits that homeless people receive under the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program was inhumane and unfair. The plaintiffs are requesting an emergency injunction from the court.
“On July 1, hundreds of Vermonters with disabilities will be ousted from their motel shelter to live in vans, barns, campsites, and our city streets,” Vermont Legal Aid lawyers wrote in a press release. “Our clients are anxious and fearful about what comes next, and our local communities are scrambling to develop the infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of this population.”
The Agency of Human Services has provided housing benefits for nearly 6,000 households that have stayed in motels at some point during the past 15 months.
Under the new rules, adults 60 and older, households with children, and people who are pregnant or disabled will be able to remain in the motels through mid-September or longer, depending on funding. About a third of the 2,300 people still in the motels will be kicked out come July 1.
“Our hope is that the court will schedule a hearing before July 1,” staff attorney Mairead O’Reilly said.
Housing advocates said the changes to the program could cause a humanitarian crisis. In its filing, legal aid attorneys argued that the administration’s new eligibility criteria were overly narrow. To be eligible, residents must show they receive some type of disability benefits, such as Social Security, or have documents from a health care provider that say the person's disability prevents them from working.
The plaintiffs in the suit are Michael Hammond, 37; William Royals, 59; Taylor Cook, 30; and Tina Gray-Rand, 57.
The defendants are Mike Smith, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, and Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.
Seven Days detailed the homeless residents' desperation ahead of the deadline in a June 16 cover story headlined “Kicked to the Curb." Many motel residents told reporter Chelsea Edgar that they had no permanent housing lined up and felt betrayed by state officials.
Gov. Phil Scott defended the transition at his press conference on Tuesday.
“We’ve been talking about going back to something that was more realistic after the state of emergency, so this is no surprise to anyone,” Scott said.
Smith stressed that the criteria had been expanded significantly from what had been in place for the program pre-pandemic. He said a great deal of thought had gone into the change.
“It wasn’t one or two people sitting round in a room,” Smith said. “We actually got a lot of people together in a room through multiple meetings with advocates and the legislature to really try to come to consensus — which we did — on how this program should unwind.”
He noted that the program was originally designed to house homeless people on cold nights when shelter capacity was exceeded. The state typically housed about 300 families annually. Under the new expanded criteria allowing a “doctor’s note,” the program going forward will have about 950 eligible households, Smith said.
“I think we’ve done a fairly good job, we’ll defend what we’ve done in court and look for the outcome as we move forward,” he said.
Scott’s spokesperson, Jason Maulucci, said the issues in the suit were “squarely before the Legislature during both the regular session and the veto session and the Legislature did not take this issue up.”
The suit describes how Gray-Rand, who suffers from mental health disabilities including post-traumatic stress disorder, was informed her benefits were ending as of June 30.
A counselor helped her apply for the extended benefits, but the application was deemed incomplete because the counselor was not considered a physician, according to the suit.
Forcing people with disabilities back into homelessness risks their physical safety and mental and physical health, the suit argues.
“The harm they would suffer would be immediate and irreparable,” the attorneys wrote.
The suit also makes a number of procedural arguments, including that residents were denied the opportunity to reapply for benefits, and that the public did not have the chance to offer input on the proposed change.
Anne Wallace Allen contributed reporting.
Correction, June 29, 2021: A previous version of this story misidentified the DCF commissioner.