Facing criticism that the state has done little to prepare for a massive rise in unsheltered homelessness when a formerly federally-funded motel program winds down this summer, Gov. Phil Scott’s administration announced a series of new measures this week.
“As the brand-new commissioner of (Department for Children and Families), I’ve had to come up to speed rather quickly on a number of issues — this one being first and foremost,” Chris Winters said at a press conference held at the governor’s office Friday. “I think there’s a bit of a misperception out there that the department or the state in general, has not been planning, has not been working on this issue. And I can tell you, there’s nothing further from the truth.”
On Wednesday, state officials released a request for proposals seeking outside contractors to undertake a massive expansion of Vermont’s shelter infrastructure. Officials pointed to this on Friday as well as their efforts to partner with local service providers as evidence that they were working to rapidly put alternatives in place.
But even as they argued that the motel program was both unaffordable absent federal help and inadequately meeting the needs of its residents, state officials announced that they would continue to rely on it just a little bit longer — providing some in the motels a 28-day extension to their stay.
Before this announcement, roughly 800 people were slated to leave June 1 and another 2,000 faced a July 1 exit date. An administrative rule change will allow some of those who would have been forced out July 1 — including families with children, those 65 and over, and those receiving federal disability benefits — to remain in motels an additional 28 days. (Nothing is expected to change for those slated to leave next week.)
It’s unclear how many people will receive the extra month of shelter. An actual breakdown was not available from state officials on Friday, although minors alone account for nearly 600 of the individuals living in motels.
Motels are currently sheltering an estimated 80% of the state’s unhoused population, and shelter providers up and down the state have made clear that they are already at capacity, with few realistic avenues for rapid expansions.
The reaction from local leaders and service providers to the state’s announcements this week have been mixed. The help is welcome, they’ve said — but belated and likely inadequate.
In Burlington, which is bracing for new encampments, Mayor Miro Weinberger on Friday released a statement saying the 28-day extension was “welcome and surprising, as this is not what we have heard in meetings with State officials as recently as earlier this week.”
“However, this doesn’t go far enough. Emergency congregate shelters are no place to raise a young family,” he continued. “Burlington is preparing a regional, multi-agency proposal to transition these families from the temporary shelter offered by the motel program directly into housing and will be submitting it to the Agency of Human Services next week in response to the RFP process launched on May 22.”