It’s going to be much tougher for homeless people to get motel rooms on the state’s dime starting in mid-July. The Department for Children and Families (DCF) is hoping a new set of rules will save several million dollars, but advocates are calling the changes “draconian.”
The state shelled out $4 million in motel bills for its homeless residents during fiscal year 2013. The Legislature wants that tab cut by more than half, to $1.5 million, and to comply with that order, DCF has devised a point system to determine who is “vulnerable” enough to get a room.
When shelters fill up, the state relies on motels to house people who have lost their housing. Homeless advocates, lawmakers and state officials are all eager to scale back the state’s reliance on the pricey stopgap measure, but there’s no consensus on how that should be done.
“They’ve put the cart before the horse,” said Erhard Mahnke, coordinator for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition. “Nobody thinks living in a one-room motel with a hotplate is a good solution to homelessness. It’s a Band-Aid.”
The problem, according to Mahnke and other advocates, is that DCF has stripped that Band-Aid before they’ve put other supports — such as more transitional housing — in place. And they are doing it at a time when shelters are ill-equipped to pick up the slack.
Shelter capacity in Chittenden County is particularly strained. COTS (Committee on Temporary Shelter) runs a shelter in Burlington with space for 36 individuals and 15 families. It’s been at full capacity for five years running, and there are typically 25 families on the waiting list, according to Becky Holt, communications director for COTS.
“They’ve put the cart before the horse. Nobody thinks living in a one-room motel with a hotplate is a good solution to homelessness. It’s a Band-Aid.”
Erhard Mahnke, coordinator, Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition
Doug Racine, secretary of Human Services, said he is concerned about shelter capacity, too, but DCF has a finite amount of money to work with. “I understand the concern that not enough supports are in place at this point, but we can’t do what some advocates want us to do, which is spend more money than we have.”
DCF asked the Legislature for $2 million to fund the program in FY 2014; the Legislature shaved half a million off that request.
Racine contends the department has programs that will help some of the people displaced by the new rules. He pointed to rental subsidies, which benefits about 70 families and a recent $2.1 million investment in a program that helps people avoid eviction by helping with back rent. Racine said DCF is also working to expand shelter capacity in Chittenden County.
The new rules take effect July 15, but they have a short shelf life. DCF has to develop permanent rules within 120 days.
The temporary system calculates vulnerability based on 11 categories — people have to score at least six points among the different categories to qualify for a motel voucher. Previously, anyone claiming to be homeless was deemed eligible, as long as shelters were full. Stories of abuse and ballooning costs prompted department officials and lawmakers to pursue changes in the program.
Now, families with children 6 years old or younger and people receiving disability benefits are the priority — they get three points apiece. People on welfare and probation and parole also get points. For a complete list of the categories and the points that accompany them, see the attached document at the end of the story.
The system sets a very high bar for homeless people to clear, advocates say.
“I don’t know what they are thinking,” Mahnke said. “No one is going to qualify.”
Holt said, “From our perspective, it will be very difficult to reach the six points on the new scale. Even a frail elderly woman would no longer qualify.”
People 65 and older get one point on DCF’s new scale. A woman in her third trimester of pregnancy who is on welfare and has other kids would qualify only if at least one of her children were 6 years old or younger. A disabled veteran on welfare would be one point short of qualifying.
People who don’t fit into multiple categories will fall through the cracks, Mahnke said. “The problem with the point system is it’s rigid.”
Racine doesn’t deny that very few people will qualify under the new system. But the rules have to be rigid, according to Racine, because DCF anticipates spending the bulk of its allotted $1.5 million on the people who do qualify.
The point system doesn’t apply to people who are displaced due to a flood, fire, hurricane or other “catastrophic” events. The rules are also waived in periods of extremely cold weather. Department officials say they don’t know exactly how much they spend on these exceptions, but rough estimates indicate the cold weather exemption, put in place January 2012 at Gov. Peter Shumlin’s behest, cost $900,000 in FY 2013.
Richard Giddings, deputy commissioner for DCF, said he doesn’t know how many people will become ineligible for motel stays come July 15, but since the budget was cut by 60 percent, it’s safe to estimate there will be a corresponding decline in the number of people they can serve.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said she’s confident the department will come up with an appropriately nuanced approach.
“I think they are fairly blunt instruments, but they are emergency rules and I think by going through the permanent rulemaking process, they [DCF] will fine tune them,” she said.
In response to blowback from advocates, Shumlin pushed back the implementation date for the emergency rules from July 1 to July 15.
“We asked for a short delay in the effective date for the new criteria in the emergency rule to allow for more time for input into the proposal and consideration of any further warranted changes,” Shumlin said in a statement. Racine is holding a meeting in his office Tuesday to get input from advocates, but some of them say the gesture is belated.
Chris Curtis, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid who hadn’t heard about the meeting, said, “The horse is out of the barn now. The rules have already been filed. That process seems backward.”