Business & Economy

Motel rooms for Vermonters seeking shelter are increasingly hard to find

The Quality Inn in Barre dedicates several rooms to housing Vermonters through the state’s general assistance housing program. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Across the state, advocates for Vermonters experiencing homelessness say they are struggling to place people in hotel rooms despite — or potentially because of — relaxed eligibility guidelines enacted last fall.

Hotels in some regions are full, and while the state said it would provide transportation to other locations, not everyone wants to leave behind their support system, including friends, family and doctors. 

In November, the Department for Children and Families revised the state’s “adverse weather conditions” policy, allowing Vermonters who make less than $24,000 annually to shelter in a motel from Nov. 22 to March 1. 

During past winters, people had to apply for motel rooms on a daily basis when the temperature dropped below a certain threshold or precipitation was in the forecast. The new regulations allowed for extended motel stays regardless of weather conditions.

Some advocates now say it’s harder than ever to find a motel room for a person living outside. That’s been particularly troubling as temperatures Tuesday dove below zero degrees across most of the state, which remains under a National Weather Service wind chill warning through Saturday afternoon.

State officials, however, say anyone who wants a room can get one. 

“We were able to house everyone in hotels,” Tricia Tyo, deputy commissioner of the state Department for Children and Families’ Economic Services Division, said at Wednesday’s House General Committee meeting. “Some of the hotels opened up additional beds because of the cold weather.”

From the state’s perspective, providing a room — any room — is the best it can reasonably offer.

“We do have enough capacity to provide rooms for all who need it but it may not be in their preferred location,” Tyo wrote in an email to VTDigger. “We have been and remain concerned about capacity at motels. Especially during holiday weekends such as this upcoming and extreme cold weather.”

As of Jan. 14, Vermont housed 1,768 adults and 475 children in 1,412 hotel rooms statewide. The state transported only two people to a motel room in advance of Tuesday’s cold snap, Tyo said. 

But Vermonters experiencing homelessness and their advocates dispute the state’s assessment. 

“What we found is that the availability of motel rooms is not what it’s been in the past,” said Michael Redmond, the executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, a shelter and food shelf in White River Junction.

He said he has directed people to call the Economic Services Division this week to get a room, but they are being told that there are no rooms available or that the only rooms available are far away. 

Simon Dennis, the founding director of the Center for Transformational Practice in White River Junction, said he knows people who have spent hours on the phone with 211 waiting for approval, only to find out there were no nearby rooms. 

He helped transform two RVs into mobile apartments to keep people sheltered during the winter. One of the RV residents feared for their safety while staying in a motel previously, and another was camping before transitioning into the mobile shelter. 

The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity has encountered similar challenges in Chittenden County. 

“Not all the hotels will see people who have pets, for instance, which is a barrier,” Executive Director Paul Dragon said. Often, moving to another region for housing may exacerbate the risk factors leading to homelessness in the first place. 

“Maybe they’re getting medically assisted treatment at the clinic that they have to show up to every day,” Dragon said. “That is another kind of barrier.”

The state’s official messaging also contradicts the experience of the Good Samaritan Haven shelter in Barre. 

“A couple showed up at our shelter yesterday, and they said ‘the state told us to come here,’” said Rick DeAngelis, the shelter’s executive director. But the shelter had no beds to offer.

Through his relationship with a local hotel owner, DeAngelis booked the couple a nearby room for the night, and Good Samaritan provided gas money so they could drive to a more permanent housing situation in New York. 

The state works with hotels contractually, but as a private citizen, DeAngelis has found he has more leeway in securing rooms for people. Still, rooms are disappearing. 

“I know who to call — the owners and all that. But there were only three rooms available yesterday (Wednesday) in Washington County that I could lease,” DeAngelis said. 

To the south, Chloe Viner Collins, who runs the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, has had even more trouble. 

“The motel voucher program was actually completely full recently. So if folks called, they were being told there’s no hotel rooms available,” she said.

Although 211 says that no one will be denied shelter, the fine print is more complicated, Viner Collins said. 

“I knew a client who called 211, got a hotel room, then wasn’t able to get transportation to the hotel room and now is ineligible for a new room because they no-showed,” she said.

However futile the current situation, giving up solves nothing. 

“I had a guy who was sleeping under a bridge, and I called with him for like 10 hours, and we couldn’t get through. And you know, 10 hours when it’s this cold, people die,” Viner Collins said. 

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Ethan Weinstein

About Ethan

Ethan Weinstein is a general assignment reporter focusing on Windsor County and the surrounding area. Previously, he worked as an assistant editor for the Mountain Times and wrote for the Vermont Standard.

Email: [email protected]

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