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Hundreds of Vermonters experiencing homelessness in Chittenden County have found refuge from the pandemic in hotels that have been transformed into shelters.
But one of these operations is closing its doors.
The South Burlington Holiday Inn will end a partnership with the state government June 30 to begin renovations. The move may displace 125 people now housed at the hotel, said Dave Gundersen, program director for emergency housing with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, which oversees the Holiday Inn operation.
Two motels in the Middlebury area are also ending partnerships with the state, said Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, which oversees the motel program.
The state is projecting a loss of 250 beds, Brown said. Currently, 2,595 people are housed in 1,970 hotel rooms across the state.
Gundersen said the state has funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to continue the hotel program until September. When the pandemic hit, the state expanded emergency housing hotel vouchers for any Vermonter who needed a room to isolate from the Covid-19 pandemic outside of congregate shelters.
People who relied on the South Burlington Holiday Inn for shelter are scrambling to find their next home.
Jeff Flores has been living at the Holiday Inn since June. He has multiple health issues that have kept him out of work, and he’s been trying to secure disability benefits.
“I was devastated because I’m still trying to get housing,” Flores said when the hotel management told him he would be losing his hotel room by June 30. He said he has filed paperwork for a state housing voucher, but there may not be enough affordable units available.
“I’m hoping and praying that that at least opens the door,” Flores said. “Because if it doesn’t, I’m screwed.”
The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity staff is working with Flores to find housing before the Holiday Inn closes.
Larkin Hospitality, which operates a number of hotels across the state, owns the Holiday Inn. Joe Larkin, chief financial officer for the company, said in an email statement to VTDigger that “it was always the hope and intent of this partnership to be a short-term solution for the Covid-19 crisis.”
“With Vermont’s progress on the vaccine distribution, and a belief that tourism and business travel will return to Vermont, we look forward to bringing this property back to its pre-Covid-19 use as a hotel,” Larkin wrote.
Gundersen said Larkin Hospitality has been a “great and patient” partner with the state.
The state’s coronavirus relief package could fund vouchers for back rent and housing through the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, he said.
But given Chittenden County’s tight housing market, Gundersen said the money might be used for more creative solutions, such as buying campers as temporary residences or paying families and friends who let people without homes couch surf with them.
“We're trying to bring together the funding that's going to be able to get people to somewhere to be. Ideally, not a tent,” Gundersen said. “I hope it doesn't happen, but I think maybe a consequence of this would be an expansion of the encampments around the Burlington area. They’ve been pretty scarce in population, but from what I’ve heard they’ve already started to expand a little bit more.”
With the end of the hotel partnerships, the state needs to decide if, and how, the hotel voucher program will continue, even after the pandemic is over. The state would like to form a working group to make a recommendation, Brown said. That project is part of the 2022 budget proposal that the House has passed and sent to the Senate.
Looking back on the yearlong hotel program, Gundersen said single-occupancy rooms with on-site services at the hotels helped Vermonters escape homelessness.
“What we've done in the pandemic is put people in a more respectful setting where they have their own space,” Gundersen said. “We can mitigate a lot of the stuff that comes out as people work through the trauma they've experienced and are experiencing being homeless.”