Health Care

DCF curtails motel voucher program for homeless; advocates object

Secretary Doug Racine. VTD/Josh Larkin
Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine. Josh Larkin/VTDigger

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.”

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Alicia Freese

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  • Will Hunter

    Vermont needs to get busy developing more housing options so that there are supportive places for people who find themselves homeless. Making it tougher (or easier) to get vouchers for motel rooms is no solution. Motel rooms should not be a part of the plan for people with chronic problems; they are, by definition, short-term emergency fixes. Sadly, despite a lot of talk a year or so ago and the appointment of various people to coordinate housing efforts, I don’t see much effort to expand the kind of housing that addresses this need in a realistic way. The State still seems infected by the mentality of “If you build it, they will come.” In other words, let’s not build shelters, because we know they would fill up.

    • Robert Winthrop

      So gangbangers from Springfield Mass that committed crimes in Vermont and are on parole get preference over the Vermonter who worked hard all his life and lost his job through no fault of his own? On another note YES the children are victims, but you give even more “points” to the local girl who keeps getting pregnant by the drug dealer from Springfield MA who keeps her addicted to drugs? I am no Republican, but what a MESSED UP STATE!

  • Fred Woogmaster

    Yikes! What an awful situation. It’s all about priorities, is it not?

    Homeless people are virtually invisible and powerless. Many are innocent victims who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The children? Absolute victims.

    This article, juxtaposed with the articles about the new mental health facility in Middlesex is quite revealing.

    That facility with a capacity of less than ten(I think seven) cost a small fortune to build. The cost of treatment, per patient, is greater than four hundred thousand dollars a year.

    Through advocacy work and the testimony of “credible” members of society, mental health patients receive greater compassion and much better treatment than in the past. That’s good!

    The homeless – in most cases no less worthy, a virtually voiceless constituency, spoken for by the small number of devoted citizens who care for them, many of them unpaid – all of them underpaid – get the crumbs.

    Compare the payroll of a homeless program to the payroll of the program in Middlesex. Shocking! Medical model, psychiatric programs are extremely expensive. The “professionalization” determines that. Success? Not guaranteed.

    We could build how many residences for the homeless and how many job training programs for that same amount ?

    Those who are actively working to remedy such a blatant imbalance and to help restore the lives of those without homes are worthy of our gratitude and deep appreciation.

    It IS about priorities, is it not?

  • Deb Tyson

    This does not surprise me at all. VT is no longer the state who cares about its people, only its pockets. We have the Justice system, that refuses to believe that what happen in this country with foreclosures couldn’t happen here.In a small town in southern VT that has 2600 people ( or less) has over 70 foreclosures ! That’s in just one small town,a few of them homes were Countrywide and well we all know the story behind that. Why doesn’t the state buy up some of these vacant homes , and turn them into low income housing or shelters? The cost would be less in the long run.. and after all the missing documents and papers shouldn’t be a problem in a state that doesn’t have them problems. A majority of these people homeless are because of the foreclosures that don’t happen in VT. VT you should be ashamed of yourselves, this is not what a true Vermonter is about.

  • Phyllis North

    This is a very sad situation. Our American society and economy is in a gradual but real decline, which means we have more needs. But due to the decline we have less money to spend and can’t afford to borrow more from the Chinese.

  • Eric Robichaud

    The legislature needs to act and act fast! If there is room at the inn as of midnight the capitalists that own the motel should be forced to give up rooms to the homeless at NO CHARGE!


    • bill taylor

      We’ll all stop by tonight to raid your refrigerator if we get hungry.

  • George Cross

    What is wrong with this picture? The City of Burlington is purchasing over 200 perfectly good, affordable homes surrounding the airport in S. Burlington to tear them down because they are in the “unsuitable for residential use zone” and at the same time our knowledgeable(?) politicians are promoting, with the help of wealthy real estate developers, bringing the F-35 warplane to the airport although it is, according to the Air Force, 4 times as loud as the current planes. And, we have a shortage of affordable housing fro Vermont families. So we buy homes to tear down because they are in a too loud area and then bring in a louder plane, why? Oh, maybe so we can buy more homes and tear them down, etc. etc.

  • Jim Barrett

    Oh you mean the poor taxpayer won’t have to be stiffed as much as before and putting people up at nice motels! I can’t believe this state and why the people allow the politicians to stiff them so much without anyone hollering or even complaining.

  • Kai Mikkel Forlie

    Its time to rethink our approach to the problem of ‘houselessness’.

    $4M equates to ~100 tiny houses on wheels, ala Tumbleweed Tiny Houses or the equivalent. 100 tiny houses would fit nicely in 100 backyards spread around the state. Safe, stable and high quality housing would provide qualifying house-less people and families with the ability to keep and/or acquire income producing jobs. Stable incomes would allow folks to pay modest rents to the owners of the backyards or vacant lots where the tiny houses would reside. Modest rental income would help participating homeowners increase their incomes and their ability to spend thus producing additional knock-on effects. New relationships would form where perhaps there were none.

    Tiny houses are cheap to operate (highly efficient) and cheap to maintain (tiny square footage) and can last indefinitely. They can be designed as off-grid structures to minimize their impact on local services. Features might include modest DC electrical systems powered by modest solar arrays and a few batteries, passive refrigeration (in cool and cold months), rain water harvesting and storage (in warmer months) and hand powered reverse osmosis filters (for potability), very modest plumbing and/or gravity fed water supply, utilization of simple onsite greywater systems and reliance on Urine Diverting Dehydration Toilets (UDDTs), tiny marine wood stoves or tiny sealed combustion marine propane heaters for space heating, alcohol powered marine ranges for cooking, etc. Tiny houses can be constructed with non-toxic local materials like white pine and/or spruce framing, cellulose insulation, northern white cedar siding, trim and interior paneling (and even roofing), locally produced windows and doors and locally fabricated tandem-axle trailers. Tiny houses are also perfectly adapted to utilize reclaimed materials when they are available (framing, windows and doors, fixtures, etc.). Vermonters would build the structures.

    The state could build more tiny houses each year until our house-less population becomes negligible. The tiny house program could be designed in such a way that residents could contribute funds to eventually own the structures themselves. Tiny houses can be located in town centers such that residents would not need cars and could rely on walking, bicycling and/or mass transit to get to work, school and to shopping. Ultra-efficient tiny houses would allow people to survive far better on limited incomes and/or to work less in order to spend more time with family, attend to educational needs and/or volunteer their time to give back to the community. A fleet of tiny houses would actually allow the State to get something tangible in exchange for the outlay of public funds.

    We could basically eradicate houselessness for once and for all. Surely this is smarter than wasting millions on motels?

    • kevin lawrence

      Your tiny home model has merit. My experience as a landlord is that getting people to own their housing dilemmas is a challenge. Section 8 folks get a frozen/prepared food mindset whereby they often won’t do much to plan ahead. Apparent ease and immediate convenience rule their thoughts, given their daily shortages.
      Living in a Tiny house as you describe it would require a more educated mindset that would have to be taught and absorbed. Small spaces fill with clutter. Heating with wood requires planning and insight. Using solar power implies restraint and planning. Tenancy “rights” while living in someone else’s backyard would come into conflict with the first wild party– and believe me, many of these families claim extensive rights, even if their rent is unpaid.
      So your Tiny house idea is a good concept that would need built in social supports. If successful, a whole new set of values could be learned that would serve people well from all sides. However, just providing the structures would be a failure without family educational supports– something for which our state rarely pays the bill .

  • Eric Robichaud

    Don’t forget the gardens that they could lovingly tend in order to grow locally sustainable kale and marijuana and flowers and raise tiny free range chickens that would yield enormous high protein eggs. The hay that they would lovingly harvest from the organic grasses that they allow to flourish would provide ample sustenance to humanely treated free range beefalo that would roam from sea to shining sea. In the evening the now content and harmless wildlife would serenade the townfolk with melodies unheard since prehistoric time. The wildlife, now content, would no longer harbor anger and look to hurt each. The mosquitoes would not bite and would frolic with the bats who in turn would frolic with the windmills.

    But alas, we did not elect Howard Dean.

    • Dave Stevens

      Hey, I just had to say that I love the dry sarcasm.

  • Dave Stevens

    When a homeless couple gets arrested for dealing drugs out of a motel room funded by generous Vermonters, while at the same time the motel manager is quoted saying “this is standard operating procedure”, it’s time for a change people.

  • Dave Stevens

    In addition, The state of Michigan (for example) has numerous outreach programs for the homeless which in large part are opererated by various church organizations. And does anyone remember that a few months back that Vermont was ranked (what was it) first or 2nd in the nation as being the least religious state in the nation? You could make an argument that Vermont’s lack of faith based organizations is a contributing factor in this particular issue. So how can our state with its high spending, high taxes, defecits year after year possibly compare to the legions of compassionate faith based volunteers along with it’s infrastructure and vast resources which are donation based, and not tax based? I’ll see everyone at church this sunday.

    • Jason Farrell

      “So how can our state with its high spending, high taxes, defecits year after year possibly compare to the legions of compassionate faith based volunteers along with it’s infrastructure and vast resources which are donation based, and not tax based? I’ll see everyone at church this sunday.”

      State “defecits” year after year? Please provide some proof of that claim. And, the solution you seek is simple. Tax the churches in Vermont for the vast wealth they possess in real estate. The tax-payer subsidies of churches and church properties cost Vermont homeowners and business millions in lost revenue each year.

  • Mary Gerisch

    The fact that Mr Racine refers to other programs which can supply vouchers simply shows that he knows nothing about how the housing system functions. Other vouchers, (such as Section8) have LONG waiting lists- certainly nothing that someone could access on 1 week’s notice. Regardless of what I think about the wisdom of having started the motel program, it WAS started a long time ago, and to suddenly evict ON THE STREET 3/4 of the families is NOT acceptable. And why didn’t the governor’s office put out a press release on this so at least towns could get ready for the huge increase in homelessness? Most of us live one paycheck, or, in my case, social security check, away from homelessness. The folks we are talking about are not “THEM” they are “US” if we miss a paycheck or social security check. We all came together to help our neighbors during Irene- a natural disaster. Why shouldn’t we come together in the same way to help in a man-made political disaster?
    The problem of poverty and homelessness is largely one of invisibility. We don’t know and don’t want to know. Maybe tent cities in every city in Vermont will make it clear that we must and should know, and must and should act. It is the right thing to do.

  • Dylan Gifford

    The problem of poverty is a reality of life. It has always existed and always will. We can help those in need to a point, but every person is acting in their own interest. That will never change. Resources are never limitless.

    Irene strikes hurting those who were vulnerable to the remnants of a hurricane and unsurprisingly all act in their own interest. For some, that means helping their neighbors. For some, that means illegally mining gravel in a river or earning double overtime pay.

    The same cold winters forcing hardship on the homeless that do choose to live here also keep most of them away. Burlington will never have the transient populations of warmer areas and for that I am grateful.