House Speaker Jill Krowinski discusses the budget at the Statehouse in Montpelier on May 12. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

In less than a week and a half, on June 1, about 800 people experiencing homelessness in Vermont will lose access to a state-run program that provided them shelter in motels and hotels. One month later, on July 1, approximately 2,000 people — close to 600 of whom are children — who qualified for one extra month by virtue of their age, disability or special circumstance, will be shown the door. 

Those deadlines were written into law by Vermont’s Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature. And in an $8.5 billion state budget passed by lawmakers in mid-May, Democratic leaders held firm to that timeline, declining to extend the pandemic-era shelter program any further. 

But under pressure from a dissident group of Democrats and Progressives to re-open budget talks and continue the motel program in some form, Democratic leaders are now pointing fingers back at Gov. Phil Scott.

On Monday, House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, formally delivered to Scott a copy of the budget, officially starting the five-day clock within which the governor must decide whether to sign or veto a piece of legislation. And the following day, she released a statement, urging Scott to sign off — and blasting his administration’s “failure of leadership” for not having devised an adequate plan for the nearly 3,000 people who will soon lose their shelter.

“I implore Governor Scott to recognize the urgency of this matter and take action to allow the state budget to become law,” she wrote. “Together, we can make a meaningful difference in the lives of Vermonters, providing them with the support and resources they deserve to lead successful lives.”

A fundraising email sent out by the Vermont Democratic Party Tuesday evening went even further. In a missive pleading for “100 supporters to donate just $5 to fight back against Phil Scott’s heartless extremism,” the party claimed that the Republican governor is “trying to BLOCK Democrats from providing immediate action to house vulnerable Vermonters, refusing to do anything else to curb homelessness.”

“Your investment TODAY could be the difference between protecting struggling communities in Vermont or succumbing to the far-right’s anti-progress agenda,” the email continued. 

Democrats are correct that there is money in the budget they’ve passed that will eventually help support people who are unhoused, including millions for support services, affordable housing construction and expanded shelter capacity. And Scott has made clear that a veto on the budget is likely — because it raises new taxes.

But Scott’s objections to the budget have nothing to do with housing. Indeed, while Democrats, fortified by supermajorities, have made clear they are unafraid to bypass him entirely on certain topics (like climate change legislation) they’ve largely adopted the framework — and, crucially, the funding — proposed by Scott for next year’s state budget when it comes to Vermont’s homelessness problem. 

Federal funding for the expanded motel program, which has sheltered the vast majority of Vermont’s growing unhoused population since 2020, dried up in March. Over Scott’s objections, Democratic leaders did set state money aside to extend it for some until July 1, but they have otherwise embraced his argument that Vermont cannot afford to continue the program absent federal help.

Service providers and advocates have made clear they believe a humanitarian crisis is inevitable. With existing shelters already full, emergency departments understaffed, and a housing crisis ongoing, they say there simply are no humane alternatives to motel rooms in the immediate future.

In the very waning days of the session, under enormous pressure from advocates, Democratic leaders added $12.5 million to the budget for local service providers, to spend on such things as camping equipment for people leaving the motels or better wages for shelter staff. But this figure was arrived at in concert with administration officials — a point underlined publicly by one of the House’s own budget-negotiators — and widely panned by advocates and service providers as much too little, much too late.

Democrats are now pointing to this money as evidence that help is on the way, and that it is Scott’s obstinacy that is blocking it from arriving in time. Krowinski’s statement on Tuesday referred to money “that can be immediately allocated to communities in all 14 counties, including funding for transitional housing programs that are needed as soon as possible.”

Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College who lobbied lawmakers to extend the program said in an interview Tuesday that Democrats “must stop praising themselves” for a budget that removes shelters at a time when Vermont has one of the worst rates of homelessness in the nation.

“A homelessness policy that rests on handing out tents to people reliant on oxygen tanks and electricity-dependent devices for their survival will result in predictable and preventable harm,” she said. “The budget will be a lasting moral stain on the state.”

As for the email soliciting donations to the party, Sosin called it “obscene” that Democrats would fundraise “off the backs of the thousands of Vermonters they’ve just voted to un-shelter.”

In a statement, Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, called it “unfortunate” that the Vermont Democratic Party “has increasingly resorted to the desperate, D.C.-style attack playbook that continues to tear our nation apart.”

Jim Dandeneau, the party’s executive director, on Wednesday defended the fundraising email. “Phil Scott is putting these people out into the streets,” he said. And he argued that it was the governor’s mismanagement of federal dollars that had led to the problem. He pointed, for example, to state officials allowing some motel owners to charge as much as $8,000 for a single room.

“They lit that money on fire,” he said. But VTDigger reported on these problems with the program back in March. And lawmakers were aware of these problems long before, often complaining in committee meetings of price-gouging by motel owners. 

Lawmakers never demanded reforms from the administration over concerns about the price of the program — or reports that motels were inappropriately withholding deposits from their vulnerable tenants. Asked why, Dandeneau again pointed the finger back at Scott.

“They are a part-time, amateur Legislature with a broad agenda and a lot of work to do and work that they’re doing in the absence of any leadership or cooperation from the Scott administration. So they may not have had the time to do that,” he said.

In an interview with VTDigger, Krowinski argued simultaneously that lawmakers had exercised oversight of the motel program and that they were limited in what they could do. 

“I don’t have the power to negotiate individual contracts like the administration does. You know, there are certain things that as Speaker of the House, I do not have the power to do,” she said. She added that the motel program and its problems had been discussed in several House committees, and argued that this constituted “oversight.” Her chief of staff, Conor Kennedy, later followed up with a list of three committee hearings, one of which VTDigger covered, in which lawmakers discussed the programs in general.

And Krowinski insisted that it was urgent that Scott sign the budget now — to get desperately needed help out to local communities.

“Some of the feedback I’ve heard from providers is that the hotel program is not solving the problem that we’re trying to solve and that extra shelter beds and staff is what would be helpful,” she said.

Service providers have indeed said the extra support for shelters and staff wages is welcome and needed. But they’ve also been unequivocal that there’s no way they’ll be able to absorb the thousands about to lose their shelter within weeks.

“There are no opportunities to quickly stand-up new shelter beds,” a collection of 13 advocacy and shelter groups wrote in a joint letter released May 12, the same day lawmakers passed their budget. “We are left with cars and tents and bridge overpasses — this for families with children, people who are disabled, and the elderly.”

A group of Democrats and Progressives in the House have threatened to withhold their support for the budget, which Democratic leadership will need in June if they are to reach a two-thirds majority needed to overcome a potential gubernatorial veto. Among their demands: extend the program in some form, and force administration officials to negotiate better rates with motel owners.

Rep. Troy Headrick, P/D-Burlington, is one of those lawmakers. Upon seeing the Democrats’ fundraising plea, he took to social media, writing that “Democratic leadership had clear options to create a more humane off-ramp for our most vulnerable Vermonters.”

“They ignored those options. Instead they saw an opportunity to scapegoat the administration (perhaps fairly) and manufacture a fund raising opportunity,” he continued. “They’re RAISING MONEY to serve themselves instead of adjusting a budget to serve our unhoused.”

VTDigger's political reporter.