(L-R) Kara Casey, Mairead O'Reilly and Ken Russell at a press conference
Advocates on Monday called for Vermont to extend a housing program that’s due to end September 23, which would force people in about 540 households out of motels and hotels.
Vermont Legal Aid and other advocacy organizations want state officials to extend benefits that have housed the homeless since the start of the pandemic. The rooms are available, as is federal funding, said Mairead O’Reilly, a Vermont Legal Aid Attorney who spoke at a news conference in Montpelier.
“We cannot support the termination of benefits for immunocompromised persons whose health is still very much at risk due to the ongoing pandemic, domestic violence survivors who may feel forced to return to abusive homes rather than sleep unsheltered, pregnant women who will become more likely to have less healthy preterm babies as a result of being unsheltered,” O’Reilly said.
Several groups that work to reduce poverty and homelessness signed a September 14 letter to Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, asking that DCF extend the housing benefits for as long as possible.
In central Vermont, volunteers are handing out camping gear and meals and helping homeless people prepare for living outdoors, said Ken Russell, director of the Another Way community drop-in center in Montpelier.
“We’re helping them get stable emotionally to the best of our ability, but in a system that's falling apart, it’s really tough,” he said at the news conference. “This feels like pulling the rug out from underneath the motel system that, as imperfect as it is, it at least gets people out of the cold.”
O’Reilly said Monday afternoon she hadn’t received a response to the letter.
As the coronavirus spread in Vermont in 2020, the state used federal money to settle an estimated 6,000 households in nearly 75 motels and hotels to reduce crowding at shelters. The program — an expansion of earlier efforts to assist the homeless — has protected thousands of people from the virus, said Rick DeAngelis, executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre City. He noted that nobody housed in the program has died of COVID-19.
But DCF, which runs the program, enacted more restrictive guidelines in early summer to limit eligibility. After July 1, the program was largely available only to adults 60 and older, households with children, and people who are pregnant or disabled.
“Vermont Legal Aid has heard from countless clients who are about to lose their shelter,” said O’Reilly. She said many of them had been homeless for years, and had found shelter only through pandemic program.
“Many have also achieved a level of personal stability that they hadn't seen in a long time, having a roof, a shower, a bed, a door to lock.” she said. “These are the things that many of us take for granted."
O'Reilly noted that the state has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money from Congress for COVID relief. “We don’t have the usual financial constraints that prevent taking this level of action,” she said.