Vermont’s general assistance housing program, which sheltered thousands of Vermonters in hotels and motels throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, reverted to pre-pandemic eligibility criteria on Friday. People currently using the program will remain eligible for hotel housing through a new program, which is intended to provide greater stability.
As of July 1, the Department for Children and Families is shifting most people in hotel housing to the Transitional Housing Program, which will provide Vermonters experiencing homelessness with a hotel room for up to 18 months, and is funded with different federal dollars.
Under the general assistance program, participants would have to request regular extensions from DCF, generally every 30 days. Many people who used the program found the renewal process arduous, as it could require them to wait hours in a phone queue until a DCF worker became available. The process was particularly difficult for people with limited phone or internet access, or who had to work during business hours.
In the new program, participants will sign agreements with the hotel for three months at a time, and can stay in the program for up to 18 months. The program is intended to offer greater stability while maximizing federal funding, said Katarina Lisaius, senior adviser to the DCF commissioner.
“For the people it’s gonna work for, it’s excellent,” said Brenda Siegel, who last fall slept on the Statehouse steps for 27 nights to pressure lawmakers into extending the general assistance housing program. (That campaign by Siegel and other activists succeeded, and Siegel is now the sole Democratic candidate in this year’s race for governor.)
About 1,600 households use the hotel housing program, according to Lisaius, and as of midday Friday, 1,350 households had shifted over to the longer-term transitional housing program.
DCF will pay hotels with money from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Vermont received “upwards of $350 million” from the U.S. Treasury for rental assistance, Lisaius said. The hotel program had been funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency throughout the pandemic. Under the new program, the cost per room is higher in some hotels, as federal guidelines ban the state from negotiating with hotels for a lower rate, according to Lisaius.
The general assistance program costs roughly $110 per room, per night, she said.
All Vermonters currently in the hotel program remain eligible for the new program, Lisaius said, as the new program has less restrictive eligibility requirements. The household income threshold to participate is now 80% of the area median income — in Chittenden County, that was $55,918 in 2019, according to the most recent data from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.
The cutoff for general assistance housing was 185% of the federal poverty line, or about $25,000 per year for an individual, according to Vermont Legal Aid.
The general assistance program is not going away with the rollout of transitional housing, but it will be more limited in scope.
“The GA program is a crisis program,” Lisaius said. “So if someone is experiencing homelessness and meets the eligibility criteria, the GA program does and will still exist.”
While these longer-term occupancy agreements between hotels and program participants will function much like leases, people in the transitional housing program are not legally considered tenants. That was explicitly written into this year’s Budget Adjustment Act. However, the occupancy agreements do lay out specific rules on how a hotel can force people to leave, Lisaius said, which should provide some protections similar to those the law provides for renters.
The approximately 250 households who had not signed up for the new program were people who had not “engaged with the department,” according to Lisaius.
“We are working on agreements minute by minute, so we expect that number to go down,” Lisaius said Friday afternoon.
DCF employees, as well as nonprofit partners, have been working to sign people up for the program since April 1, both over the phone and on site at hotels.
About 70 hotels across the state participated in the assistance program, Lisaius said, and all but four of those agreed to stay on in the transitional housing program. (Two of those hotels are now being converted to permanent housing, she said.)
To Siegel, those 250 households are evidence some Vermonters are still falling through cracks in state support.
“If these programs are designed in a way that we don’t have a net for folks who they don’t fit, then we haven’t really solved the problem,” Siegel said in an interview Friday. “This is a really good thing for the people who it’s good for, but the ones who are being left behind, it is not their fault they're being left behind.”
While Siegel commended the work by DCF employees to keep people housed, she said the state could do better to support single parents, and people with severe mental illness or substance use disorder. Siegel, who’s a member of Vermont’s GA Emergency Housing Work Group, said she also worries about what will happen when winter returns. To her, any claims that there will be enough permanent housing built by then doesn’t pass “the straight-face test.”
“We have asked for there to be creativity, that we start working now on what is gonna happen in October, when people are going to be at risk of freezing to death again,” Siegel said. “We need to go beyond this moment, and we have to have actual vision for moving forward.”
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