Business & Economy

The Deeper Dig: The outlook for emergency housing

A man experiencing homelessness is seen on June 22 at the Courtyard by Marriott in Middlebury where he had been living for much of the pandemic. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Participants in the state’s emergency housing program are in limbo — again.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the state’s general assistance housing program used vacant motel rooms to house Vermonters who would otherwise be homeless. In late June, and again in late September, advocates successfully pressured the state to extend motel stays for the program’s most vulnerable residents. With the next deadline looming in late October, the same conversation has already begun.

State officials have said the program can’t continue indefinitely, and motel capacity during the fall and winter tourism seasons will limit the number of vacant rooms available. Advocates say that few options are available for affordable apartments or shelter beds, leaving the program’s participants with nowhere to go. 

On this week’s podcast, Lana Cohen speaks to temporary motel residents in Chittenden County and discusses the outlook for the emergency housing program. Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Lana, you’ve been going out and talking to some of the people who are staying in hotels and motels in your area. What have you been hearing?

Lana Cohen: Overall, I’ve really been hearing that there’s a lot of anxiety and stress over the constant deadlines involved in the motel program — and the large amount of unknowns associated with the program. Participants definitely expressed that they feel that they don’t have a lot of information. And they’re never really aware of what’s coming down the line next for them. After talking with state officials, that really makes a lot of sense, because there’s also a lot of unknowns at the state level.

How does that impact them? How do they say that makes their day-to-day situation more challenging?

Lana Cohen: I think it’s really just this big weight, this big anxiety and weight on their shoulders — just knowing that they have a roof over their head on one day, but they don’t know when that will go away. They don’t know what that will mean for them. And they don’t know what’s coming next.

Kelly Manning: I’ll tell you, I’ve done housing now in three counties. This is the third county.

Lana Cohen: One participant I spoke to, his name is Kelly Manning. He has been on the hunt for subsidized housing for four to five years, he said. 

Kelly Manning: I move around. You go wherever there’s housing. 

I moved to this county up here because there was no hotels to place me that night in Montpelier or Washington County. So I got on board and came to Chittenden County. Well, I get here and I just figure, “OK, let’s do housing here too. There’s a lot of opportunity around here, I’m disabled. I should be able to get subsidized housing — that’s all I want.”

Lana Cohen: He is disabled. He was working a construction job years ago and a piece of equipment fell on him and damaged his back with kind of disastrous consequences. He has bone spurs and chronic pain and a lot of issues that keep him from working a full-time job and from working construction jobs, which is what he had done in the past.

Kelly Manning: Living in the woods don’t work good for me. I go downhill really, really fast. I use fish and game accesses, parking lots. The cops will come around, move you. “Can’t be here.” Can’t be anywhere.

Lana Cohen: So he has been on the hunt for subsidized housing for many years. He said that he is on housing lists in multiple counties. And he recently got denied for housing from the Burlington Housing Authority. He is on Social Security disability benefits. So he does receive around $900 each month. But what he said is that even if he could find a place to live for $900 a month, he would likely be left with very little to provide for other necessities.

Kelly Manning: So I’m very stressed out and have anxiety and things like that about this housing, because I keep falling through the cracks. Because all I’ve done for four or five years is falling through the cracks.

Lana Cohen: I definitely talked to some people who seemed almost kind of numb to it. They said things such as when I get denial letters from housing, when I get all this information, it takes me a few days to even pick it up and read it because I’m just so stressed out about it. Other people I spoke to definitely feel more angry at the state — and like this motel program, and the way homeless people are being treated in general, has kind of failed them.

Mindy: I think this whole program is fucked up. I’m not gonna beat around the bush about it. I am disgusted at the way the homeless people are being treated here and at every other hotel.

Lana Cohen: Mindy, which is an alias, is another person I spoke with. And she has been struggling with housing for many years. She’s been in the specific motel that she’s in now since October of 2020. It’s very clear that she is anxious and scared and also extremely frustrated and angry. She said that if and when she has to leave the motel program, she plans on taking her tent and camp in front of the Statehouse.

Mindy: I’m going to go park my tent on the Montpelier grass. No joke. I want them to know how bad it is.

Lana Cohen: Mindy, within the past year, had received a housing voucher from the state. And I think she was really frustrated because it was the first time she had received the housing voucher, but there was just nothing for her to rent in Chittenden County.

Mindy: There’s nothing to rent in the Champlain Valley. And to lose your voucher because there isn’t an apartment — like, there was nothing to rent. You couldn’t even go look at apartments.

Lana Cohen: So it was this really frustrating situation where she received this help from the state, but there was no way and nowhere for her to use it. And that’s what brought her back to the motel program. 

I think Mindy, like many people, they don’t really want to be in the motel program. They want to be in permanent housing. I think every single person across the board, from state officials to advocacy organizations to the people participating in this program, they don’t think that this is a good long-term solution. But they don’t understand what the state expects of them if they have to leave the motel program when there’s no housing available.

Right. If everyone’s kind of in agreement that permanent housing for people would be the ideal solution, what are the barriers to making that happen?

Lana Cohen: Part of it is just how long it takes to build new housing, from the decision phase that you’re going to start a project, and getting permits, and talking to communities, to actually putting the final touches on a building. It just takes a while. 

Everybody says that it’s their priority right now, to build housing. And they’re talking about it on the state level. Chittenden County towns are talking about it. Regional planners are talking about it. Everybody knows that this is an issue and that this has been an issue for a very long time in Vermont. This is not new. The pandemic just really showed what a desperate situation we are in.

On September 17, about a week before eligibility for most families was last set to expire, the state official who oversees the motel program testified before the Joint Fiscal Committee of the Legislature. Sean Brown, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, was there to discuss the $2,500 checks that participants receive when they’re forced to leave their rooms.

Sean Brown: We anticipate that there’ll be about 543 households that will be exiting the program and eligible for that payment. 

By this point, advocates for people who were facing that deadline had begun to pressure the state to push it back. Mary Hooper, a state representative from Montpelier who chairs that committee, told the commissioner that she was deeply concerned about kicking people out.

Mary Hooper: To be clear, the 84-day clock is up next week. And we’re going to see another exodus — significant exodus — of folks from the housing program. That is the plan that was in place back in May, when we were looking at the virus consequences going down. Again, we don’t have an action here. But I personally am deeply concerned about sticking to a plan that is likely to put a large number of people essentially back on the streets. 

But Brown said that in a matter of weeks, the motel rooms for homeless Vermonters wouldn’t be there.

Sean Brown: We cannot control the decisions of private businesses. And so we have 900 rooms today. I think we’re going to have about 650 in several weeks as the tourist season unfolds up here. And I believe we will even have less available when the ski season happens. So within that dynamic, it’s hard to say we’ll extend someone three months when I can’t guarantee I’ll have a room for them in three days.

Lana says that argument didn’t land with people who have been advocating for the state to extend this program even further than September.

Lana Cohen: It was estimated that around 600 people were slated to lose their rooms on Thursday, Sept. 23. And advocates just said there is no way that motels are losing 600 rooms on Thursday — and that whatever amount of rooms are left available, those should be used to house homeless Vermonters, because otherwise those people would be out on the streets. There are no shelter beds, there are no options for permanent affordable housing. And so taking them out of the motel program was just almost automatically assuring that they would be on the streets.

Advocates definitely voiced their specific concern about homeless Vermonters with disabilities, or homeless Vermonters at particularly high risk to contract Covid-19 and become very sick, because being out on the streets would obviously have an adverse impact on many of their issues.

Mairead O’Reilly, Vermont Legal Aid: When the Legislature approved the administration’s plan to offer benefits for only 84 days, circumstances were really different.

Lana Cohen: But what it really came down to was that they just didn’t believe it was necessary to put people on the streets. And that if there was a way for the state to put a roof over these people’s heads rather than kick them out onto the streets of Vermont, then that’s what should be done.

What happened next?

Lana Cohen: After advocates pushed really hard on the state, the state decided to put a 30-day pause on the motel program.

Gov. Phil Scott: It will give us an opportunity to re-engage and make sure that we’re doing it for the right reasons. We thought we were on the same page, that we were all at the same goal. But that seems to be fracturing as we get closer to the date. So I thought it was a good idea to just pause this for 30 days. And we’ll come to bring everybody together. 

Lana Cohen: A 30-day pause really just means that participants in the motel program get another 30 days before they come to the same ending. But it does provide social workers, housing workers and motel participants time to fill out the appropriate forms that could provide them with a 30-day extension in the program.

Got it. But that puts us towards late October — it seems likely that we’ll essentially be having the same conversation that we’re having right now, about a large number of people who seem to have no other place to go.

Lana Cohen: Yes. This was a big discussion that happened in July. And now we’re having this discussion again. And yes, I would anticipate that this conversation will be pretty similar in around 30 days, because there just isn’t going to be a significant amount of more affordable housing available at that time. Champlain Housing Trust, which is the biggest landlord of affordable housing in the state — they don’t have anything new coming online in the next three months. And although they have units coming online in the next 12 to 18 months, that’s not going to help anybody in 30 days.

Kevin Pounds: I would say we, every evening, exceed what would be considered our official occupancy, if you will. I think we’re set up to handle really about 50 people per night. That’s what our original intention was. But we, on an every evening basis, probably see between 55 and 60 people onsite, and then are turning away people too.

Lana Cohen: One other group of people that I’ve spoken with is operators of shelters. Kevin Pounds, who runs ANEW Place, a shelter program out of Burlington, said that every single night, the facility is over capacity, and they’re turning people away. And he is particularly concerned about this now happening in September, because it’s not even cold yet. There’s not snow on the ground, it’s well above freezing and the conditions are pretty good. But still, there’s just this enormous need for a shelter bed to stay in. So he’s extremely concerned about what’s going to happen when the weather turns, and when at least a few hundred people are forced out of the hotel program. He doesn’t know where those people are supposed to go.

Kevin Pounds: I guess my biggest concern is that maybe there’s an impression that this is just a homeless services agency problem, instead of looking at it as like a community-wide challenge, if that makes sense. I think people can look at it and go, “Oh, well, you know, ANEW Place or COTS or Spectrum or Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity” — the groups that in some ways provide shelter or support services to people in shelters — they’re like, “Hey, it’s their job to fix this.” And when all those nonprofits are at capacity, and there’s a bigger systemic issue when it comes to not enough housing being available, not even enough shelter space being available, that’s not just a specific group and nonprofit challenge to fix. That’s really a community-wide challenge.

Lana Cohen: He’s worried because he thinks that many people will head to Burlington. It’s the population center. It’s the center of many social services and human services in Vermont. And so it really is the place that makes the most sense to come to. But there’s just nowhere to stay. There are no houses available. There are no apartments available. The housing market is so tight, and as many people expressed to me, people who are in the motel program are competing against others for those houses. They’re competing against college students and dual-income families. And so the question is, who’s going to get those apartments that are available? And many people worry that it will not be these most vulnerable Vermonters.

Kevin Pounds: We just look — OK, this many people are going to be exiting motels, this many units. And we all agree that people need to be in long-term housing, not in emergency shelters. I mean, I agree with that 100% — in fact, I wish we had less of a need for emergency shelters, even though we run one. 

I think that the reality of it is, short-term, there’s got to be a place for the people exiting the motels to go. And having them exit without us having increased shelter capacity statewide seems like a really dangerous way to approach this winter.

I remember earlier this year, when the state of emergency was coming to an end, that a lot of advocates who work on poverty, on housing, on hunger, kind of projected that some kind of rocky transition was ahead as a lot of these different types of aid programs were winding down — and they didn’t want to see things just revert to the way they were before Covid. It seems, though, like the way that this is playing out, there’s not an easy answer as to how that happens, as to how we keep people from just reverting to exactly where they were back in 2019. Does that seem fair?

Lana Cohen: I would say that seems fair. Of course, across the country and across the state, and across the world, the pandemic really brought to light many of the disparities that were just a little more hidden in the shadows before the pandemic. And in Vermont, one of the really big problems that has gained more attention and has become just way more present and prevalent during the pandemic is the lack of affordable housing, and the situation that homeless Vermonters are in. And although many local municipal governments and the state government says that’s something that they’re really working on, this is a problem that Vermont has had for a very long time. 

So the question of if and when enough affordable housing will be available in Vermont to support the population, and especially vulnerable Vermonters and disabled Vermonters and homeless Vermonters? I don’t think anybody really knows when the appropriate amount of affordable housing will even be available. I don’t think that there is an end date on this crisis.

At his weekly press conference last Tuesday, Governor Phil Scott wouldn’t say whether it was likely or not that the current motel stays would be extended again.

Gov. Phil Scott: There isn’t one single answer. We have to make sure that there’s units available. We have to see what the demand is, where we can put different people in different situations, in different geographical areas. So we’re assessing all that right now. We think we’re on a good path, and we’ll continue to work with all the players, so to speak, in this area.

Scott said more information would be available before the current 30-day extension is up.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Mike spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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