The General Assistance Housing Program, which is administered through the Economic Services division of the Department of Children and Families, is the state’s main apparatus for addressing homelessness.
This year, the department has put more homeless Vermonters up in motels — intended as a last-resort option when shelters are full — than ever before. This emergency housing provided to people displaced by a “catastrophic event” accounts for much of the uptick in costs.
During the last several weeks, DCF Commisioner Dave Yacavone has been peddling the department’s fiscal year 2014 budget proposal to several legislative committees, including the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, and the House committees on Appropriations and General Housing and Military Affairs. The budget includes two proposals that would wean program off of reliance on motels, but advocates say it doesn’t do nearly enough.
For the upcoming year, Yacavone is hoping to cut emergency housing spending by $500,000 but the department still expects to funnel roughly $1.6 million into motel housing payments. “We won’t eliminate hotels. I would love to. We will vastly reduce it,” Yacavone told VTDigger.
Below is a wrap-up of the pressures on the program and the budgetary consequences.
The GA housing program spent 78 percent more in 2012 than it did in 2010, and expenditures have taken another leap this year. The program will spend nearly $3.5 million by the close of FY2013, up from $2.4 million in 2012. Emergency housing currently accounts for about $2.2 million of the program budget. In FY2014, DCF hopes to reduce this to $1.6 million.
The story behind the spending
In FY 2008, the program served 548 households. In 2012, that number was 1,954. The prediction for the current year— FY 2013— is 3,108.
The number of homeless children showing up in shelters has risen disproportionately, according to the AHS report. It increased 14 percent between FY 2011 and FY2012, whereas the total number of people in shelters stayed steady.
The average cost per case has risen from $617 in 2010 to $1,138 in 2012.
The average length of stay in emergency housing has climbed 43 percent in two years, from an average of 14 days in 2010 to 20 days in 2012. This trend, coupled with the caseload increase, has created a steep increase in the total number of days the program provides housing for — from 23,564 days in 2010 to 38,350 in 2012. And in FY 2013, the number is expected to rise to 54,333 days.
The most dramatic upsurge has been the number of “after-hours” emergency housing requests made this winter. Starting in 2010, Vermont 2-1-1 began fielding all requests made after regular business hours. If the 2-1-1 operator determines that the caller meets the program criteria, they direct them to a shelter, or, if shelters are full, they are given a motel voucher. The number of requests has far exceeded shelter capacity. In Jan. 2012, 235 requests were made and 140 motel vouchers were distributed. This January, there were 1,015 requests, 731 of which received motel vouchers.
Changes on the horizon for FY 2014
In 2009, DCF expanded its eligibility guidelines to allow individuals, not just families, to access emergency housing. It is now proposing to “dial back” that change. According to its own estimates, roughly 45 percent of people receiving GA housing are individuals, and by cutting them from the program, the state will save between $800,000 and $1 million.
Family Supportive Housing
DCF also wants to set aside $450,000 to fund pilot programs in Burlington, Bennington, and Rutland to help homeless families move into housing by providing case management and financial support. Yacavone says this project will also help reduce the department’s reliance on motels.