- Kevin Mccallum
- Vicki Mindle
Vicki Mindle stood in the rain outside the Hilltop Inn in Berlin last week waiting for a bus that never came.
She was headed to the grocery store but, protected only by a maroon hoodie, was getting wetter and more miserable by the minute.
Mindle, 66, has been staying at the motel under a state program designed to keep homeless people safe during the pandemic. But any gratitude she felt for the emergency accommodations has been overtaken by frustration that she hasn't found permanent housing.
"I've been trying to get out of this place for a year and a half!" Mindle grumbled, rain dripping off her chin.
That may soon happen — but not in the way she hoped.
Lawmakers are preparing to pull the plug on a pandemic-era program that provides Mindle and about 2,800 other formerly homeless people with a roof over their heads. While state officials say they are working hard to find housing for the families living in approximately 75 motels across the state, many people will end up back on the street.
"There just aren't enough units, there aren't enough beds out there for us to help every single person. That's the reality," said Chris Winters, the new commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.
The threat of the program's demise has stoked panic among advocates for the homeless, current motel residents and some lawmakers. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to boost services, expand shelters and build more affordable housing, those advocates worry the impending changes will strain an overtaxed safety net to the breaking point.
"There will be a lot of folks without a place to go very soon, and I'm gravely concerned about their future," said Sue Minter, a 2016 candidate for governor who now serves as executive director of Capstone Community Action, a nonprofit that tries to help people out of poverty.
Homeless service organizations and the shelter system are already operating beyond capacity and are incapable of absorbing a surge of residents, Minter said. In addition, other pandemic-era programs meant to provide rental support, food assistance and medical insurance to struggling families are also ending or tightening eligibility this spring, further exacerbating the crisis, she said.
Staff members, meanwhile, are exhausted from two and half years of helping people through a pandemic. They're under added stress following recent high-profile episodes of violence against homeless service workers. In February, Gabriel DeAngelis, a shelter worker in Montpelier, was stabbed; in April, Leah Rosin-Pritchard, a shelter manager in Brattleboro, was killed by an ax-wielding resident. The incidents have made recruiting new staff for the difficult work next to impossible.
"Everyone is quite on edge," Minter said.
The anticipated surge in demand for services at a time when homeless support systems are already under intense pressure has led some activists to predict a wave of human suffering this summer unparalleled in state history.
"People are going to be at serious risk of losing their lives," said Brenda Siegel, a former candidate for governor who advocates for the homeless. "The horror of it, from a human perspective, is going to be in our faces."
Siegel has been interviewing anxious motel residents and sharing videos of their stories on social media in an effort to convince lawmakers to extend the program. On Tuesday, she held a press conference about the issue on the same Statehouse steps where she slept for 28 days in 2021 to call attention to the plight of homeless people.
The current motel program, largely paid for with federal funds, is being scaled back to pre-pandemic eligibility rules. About 790 households need to be out by June 1, while those with disabilities — about 860 households — will get an extension to July 1. Only about 150 families currently in motels are expected to be able to stay there after July 1. To be eligible, they must be facing "catastrophic" situations, such as being in the third trimester of a pregnancy, according to state officials.
Gov. Phil Scott has been trying to wind down the program for more than a year. Lawmakers now appear to be coming around to his view that the state can't afford to continue a benefit that began during a pandemic emergency that has ended.
Last month, members of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a draft budget that eliminates funding for the transitional housing program begun in summer 2022, which itself replaced a previous version launched at the start of the pandemic. Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), the powerful chair of that committee, noted that the state has already spent $200 million in federal funds on the effort. She said lawmakers need to strike a balance between the needs of people enrolled in the program and the need to steer limited resources to construction of more permanent affordable housing.
Kitchel stressed that the Senate's version of next year's budget contains $51 million in other assistance for homeless residents. This includes $26 million for the general assistance program, which pays a variety of expenses for people in emergencies, $13 million to support the state's shelter network and $3.8 million more to expand it.
The draft budget also includes more than $80 million for the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board to develop new affordable housing. That's on top of the nearly $400 million the state has already spent on the housing effort since the start of the pandemic.
But many of those units are still in development and not yet ready to accept new residents. Senators acknowledged that gap while expressing optimism that people's housing needs could be met in other ways.
- Kevin Mccallum
- Harriet Cady Armstrong, 79, was living in her car before finding a room at the new Good Samaritan Haven shelter in Berlin.
Past efforts to move people from motels to new accommodations have been successful, especially when the nudge came with financial incentives, Kitchel noted. In some cases, tenants who are moving out have been eligible to receive up to $3,300 in security deposits paid by the state.
"With some money, people can actually be resourceful and perhaps come up with the answer to their problem in a way that state government can't," Kitchel said.
Seven Days has reported, however, that some landlords have improperly withheld security deposits — money that people were relying on to get back on their feet.
Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden-Southeast) expressed confidence that the Agency of Human Services would not allow a large number of the state's most vulnerable people, such as those with disabilities, to be kicked to the curb.
"I'd feel terrible if we thought 1,000 people were going to be put out on the street, but I don't think that's reality," she told her colleagues during a committee meeting last month.
In an interview, Lyons said she believed that state case managers are working tirelessly to find housing and other services for the homeless. When lawmakers shored up the emergency housing program by adding $18.3 million during the midyear budget adjustment process, they made it clear that they wanted priority given to people with young children, those with chronic illnesses or disabilities, and the elderly, she said.
"I don't want a single mother with two kids going back to living in a car. I don't want someone in a wheelchair being sent out of their shelter," Lyons said.
Lyons acknowledged, however, that she didn't know how many of the people currently housed in motels would be made homeless again, because the administration has yet to provide a clear transition plan.
"This is one of the most frustrating situations we could possibly imagine," she said.
Siegel thinks that lawmakers who believe available beds and services will materialize in a matter of weeks are engaged in "magical groupthink." Anne Sosin, interim executive director of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition and a public health researcher at Dartmouth College, agreed. "The numbers don't add up," she said.
Oregon and other states have adopted transition plans that give priority to keeping people sheltered until other programs come online, but Vermont lawmakers and administration officials have shown little willingness to adopt a similar approach, she said.
"There is just very little political will and creativity to find a solution to move us forward," Sosin said.
But some lawmakers have expressed deep concern that people will not find alternative living arrangements before the program lapses. Sen. Nader Hashim (D-Windham) proposed an amendment to the budget bill last week that would have set aside $20 million to keep the motel program going until the winter, when cold-weather funding to place homeless people in hotels would become available again.
Hashim said ending the program without other housing options amounted to telling vulnerable people, "Good luck; you're on your own."
"If we are concerned about mental health, crime and poverty, having that shelter taken away is not going to solve those problems," Hashim said.
The proposed amendment failed, in part because of concern over the cost. To house each person in a motel, the state is paying an average of $148 per night, or nearly $4,500 per month, according to the Department for Children and Families.
"I can think of a lot of different ways we can spend that money for supportive housing," Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden-Southeast) said.
The fight's not over. The Senate approved its budget bill last week, but the House still needs to concur. That process is often one of the last tasks lawmakers do in the session, which is scheduled to wrap up in mid-May.
"From the sound of it, this program is going to end, and it's going to break my heart," said Linda Hallock, manager of the Hilltop Inn. "I've tried to support these people and calm them as much as I can, but I'm afraid for them."
Virtually all of the 90-some residents living in the 73-room Hilltop Inn are on waiting lists for other emergency housing through organizations such as Good Samaritan Haven or for subsidized apartments offered by local housing authorities.
Rick DeAngelis, co-executive director of the Barre-based Good Samaritan Haven, said the earlier state and federal funding had allowed his organization to expand its services. A $5.1 million grant helped the group buy and remodel a former Berlin motor lodge that now houses 31 people every night as a homeless shelter. But it's completely full, and there'll be no way to handle the overflow when the motels empty, he said.
"I can't imagine, at the scale we're talking about, that all people are going to find a decent, safe solution," said DeAngelis, whose son was the shelter worker stabbed in Montpelier in February.
Hallock praised lawmakers' focus on creating additional permanent affordable housing but doubts that many of her residents will be able to afford those units. People working minimum-wage jobs or collecting $900 a month in disability payments often can't pay the required rent even on subsidized apartments, she said.
"If this ends in May, without giving us more time to transition, I guarantee that more than 50 percent of the people in my building will be out on the street," she predicted.
A coalition of central Vermont service providers is urging communities to plan for the expected influx by setting aside places where people can legally camp. The City of Montpelier is considering an emergency order at its May 10 meeting. (Burlington, too, is considering a new camping ordinance for city-owned property.) To prepare, service providers are stockpiling tents and sleeping bags to hand out to the people they serve.
Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury), chair of the House Committee on General and Housing, considers that approach unconscionable.
"To cut people loose and say, 'Here's a tent and a sleeping bag' is callous, especially after we reached out a hand and did what I think is the morally correct thing to do, which is to say, 'We will give you shelter,'" Stephens said.
Losing their shelter will likely set back people who were able to deal with mental health or substance-abuse issues while in stable housing, Winters, the DCF commissioner, acknowledged. His agency is working with service providers and communities to limit that damage, but he knows it's coming.
"DCF is that safety net, but we can't save everybody," he said.
Clarification, May 3, 2023: This story has been updated with Sosin's title at the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.