A converted motel in Shelburne is at the center of a new effort to provide temporary housing to homeless people in Vermont.
The Champlain Housing Trust is purchasing the 59-room Econo Lodge on Shelburne Road and turning it into an emergency housing facility called Harbor Place.
The state already pays for homeless people to stay in motels when shelters are full, but the Trust’s plan goes beyond simply buying, renovating and renaming the property.
There’s one key difference between Harbor Place and the state-administered program, according to Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for Champlain Housing Trust: “Under the current system, someone who was accessing the motel voucher program would be put into the Econo Lodge and then they’d wake up in the morning and try to get on with the rest of their life,” Donnelly said. “In this program, there will be services to help them right on site.”
Champlain Housing Trust has recruited at least 10 other entities to provide services, ranging from job counseling to housing assistance to domestic violence services or to help with financing the project.
Harbor Place is designed to fill the void left after the state decided to scale back its own emergency housing program, which has traditionally given motel vouchers to people when shelters are full.
Last spring, Agency of Human Services (AHS) officials and lawmakers called for a reining-in of the voucher program in response to rising costs — $4 million in fiscal year 2013 — and stories of abuse.
The Legislature capped the program’s FY2014 budget at $1.5 million and the Department for Children and Families (DCF), which administers the program, developed a point system to keep costs low by limiting who could qualify for a voucher.
Under the new system, Donnelly said, “There’s less money in general to serve the people who are becoming more and more marginalized.”
Like the state’s motel program, stays as Harbor Place will be capped at 28 days, but unlike the current voucher system, there will be case workers on hand to help families and individuals find permanent housing, apply for jobs, or address other needs.
The state itself has signed on as a partner — DCF is reserving 30 rooms for people who qualify for vouchers through DCF’s point system.
DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone said he’s excited about the arrangement.
“By bringing the [case] manager in, it makes it look entirely different than just putting someone up in a hotel,” he said. “That’s a really exciting opportunity to provide wraparound services to families in a transitional housing unit.”
Yacovone also estimates the new arrangement will save the state roughly $250,000 a year. That’s because the Trust, a nonprofit operation, is confident Harbor Place will cost less — it’s charging the state $38 per night. Yacovone said the department normally pays $62 a night for motel rooms in Chittenden County.
Fletcher Allen, another partner in the project, also had good reason to come on board. The diminished state funding for motels has put the hospital in the position of picking up motel tabs for some of its homeless patients.
During August and September, Fletcher Allen paid for five patients to stay a total of 33 nights in a hotel, at a cost of $100 per night, according to Jason Williams, senior government relations strategist for Fletcher Allen.
“Harbor Place is an innovative project built by a diverse group of stakeholders that meets a distinct need,” Williams said. And, he added, “It’s cheaper.”
The patients Fletcher Allen is housing, Williams explained, require continued medical attention after they’ve been discharged. Some need regular blood transfusions, others require wound care, but even so, they don’t score enough points to qualify for a motel room under DCF’s eligibility rubric.
Fletcher Allen opposed the new point system, Williams said. But while the hospital isn’t happy about having to supplant state funding, it’s not about to discharge patients who still need care to the streets.
During the upcoming legislative session, Williams said, “I will continue to advocate this is a shift in responsibility, that this is an incredibly vulnerable population, and that we believe this isn’t the best use of health care dollars.”
The old voucher system was “unsustainable,” according to Williams, but the state pulled its funding too abruptly. “I think the biggest issue was that the switch was flipped before there was an opportunity to fix it.”
Fletcher Allen has committed $25,000 in seed capital to help with the initial purchase, and they’ve given Champlain Housing Trust $15,000 to pay in advance for 550 nights for their patients during the course of the next year.
The total cost of the Econo Lodge is $1.85 million, and the Trust is paying for most of it by taking out a loan from the Vermont Community Loan Fund.
Other partners include United Way, Fanny Allen Corp., Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, Women Helping Battered Women, Safe Harbor Clinic/Community Health Center of Burlington and Howard Center.
The refurbishment is happening on a quick timeline — the sale takes place Monday and the Trust plans to open Harbor Place within a week.
The town of Shelburne has reacted positively, according to Donnelly. “The people in Shelburne have welcomed this with open arms.”