Updated at 5:58 p.m.
Vermont Legal Aid filed a class-action lawsuit against the state on Tuesday in an 11th-hour attempt to stall the eviction of thousands of unhoused individuals from a state-managed shelter program in motels.
Vermont Superior Court Judge Timothy Tomasi scheduled an expedited hearing for 8:30 a.m. Thursday — the same day the first 800 people are scheduled to be booted from the program.
With federal cash now gone, the state is winding down a series of pandemic-era programs that shelter the vast majority of Vermont’s unhoused population in motels. Depending on their eligibility criteria, about 2,800 are due to lose their shelter in several waves over the spring and summer starting June 1.
Without alternatives in place, Rebecca Plummer, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, said a “massive humanitarian crisis” is inevitable. But the nonprofit, which serves low-income Vermonters in civil matters, is limited in its legal recourse, she said.
The lawsuit does not argue that Vermont cannot end these benefits, but instead that it violated due process rights when it failed to provide beneficiaries with adequate notice and did not go through the proper rule-making process in reverting to pre-Covid-19 regulations.
“We don’t think they should do it, but if they’re going to do it, they have to do it legally,” Plummer said. “They have to follow Vermont laws and the Vermont Constitution, and we don’t think they’re doing that.”
The state largely relied on motel owners to deliver the news to residents about when they had to leave, according to the lawsuit. And when case managers with the state did provide notice to people directly, it was orally, not in writing.
Many motel residents were simply told to call the state on June 1 to find out if they were eligible for another month of shelter or whether they needed to leave immediately, according to Plummer.
“That wasn’t in writing, but that was the message that they got: We think you might be fine, but you’ve got to call on June 1 to find out whether you can stay,” she said. “And this is the people’s home, you know, for the moment. ‘Call that morning and see if you have to get out that day.’ It’s just so much misinformation and confusion and stress and fear.”
Legal Aid is seeking a temporary restraining order and injunctions blocking the state from terminating the shelter program until it goes through the formal rule-making process and delivers written, individualized notice to motel occupants.
Even if Legal Aid is successful, all it can do is buy time, and Plummer said it was hard to guess what kind of extension it could hope for. But she said even staggering exits from the program might help service providers and municipalities somewhat better prepare.
There remains the possibility that either the legislative or executive branches might change course, she said, as Gov. Phil Scott did in part just last week, when his administration made the surprise announcement that some people would be granted a 28-day extension.
Scott has also vetoed next year’s budget, which means that lawmakers are returning to Montpelier on June 20 to either rewrite the spending plan or override the governor. One group of Democratic and Progressive lawmakers told legislative leaders they plan to withhold their support from the budget unless a better transition plan is put in place for motel occupants. Separately, House Speaker Jill Krowinski called on Scott to declare a state of emergency.
“There are still options, and so we’re hoping that some part of the government with some power to take action will do that, will take responsibility,” Plummer said.
Plaintiffs include motel residents Rebecca Duprey, a domestic abuse survivor and single mother of two children; Michael Grout, who has anxiety and depression; Brittany Plucas, who has disabling conditions following two open-heart surgeries; Cassandra Fraser-Brown, who worries her seven-year-long recovery would be in jeopardy if she returned to the streets; and Peter Corliss, who has anxiety, depression, PTSD and substance use disorder, and who became homeless after losing several family members.
The lawsuit names the Vermont Agency of Human Services, its secretary, Jenney Samuelson, and Chris Winters, the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, as defendants.
The Vermont Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the state in the lawsuit, was not immediately available for comment. But in a 42-page reply submitted to the court Wednesday afternoon, attorneys for the state asked the judge to reject the plaintiff’s request, arguing that it was “unreasonably and inexcusably delayed.”
The Legal Aid lawsuit was not filed until May 30, just two days before those households sheltered under one motel program were set to lose their housing — a date that was written into law back in March.
“Plaintiffs have therefore had more than two months’ warning of the May 31 expiration date. DCF notified all Adverse Weather program participants of the program’s expiration date by distributing letters on May 2 and again on May 23. Each Plaintiff has also had multiple individual conversations with DCF staff about their program eligibility throughout April and May,” the state wrote in its reply.
And while the state had relied on hotel staff to deliver written notices to clients, DCF had done so because it “had proven to be the most effective means of communicating with clients previously,” according to the state’s motion. The state noted that case managers at the outset of the pandemic had mailed letters to addresses previously on file for clients, and a significant portion had been returned as undeliverable.
The state also argued that because the Legislature wrote program expiration dates, the plaintiffs’ due process claims were invalid because they were “generally-applicable statutes that require no individualized adjudication.” And the motel occupants’ due process claims also fail, they argued, because they “have no property interest” in the matter, as the Legislature has made clear it does not consider emergency housing “an entitlement.”
And finally, the state argued that the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction blocking evictions would create “logistical chaos.” It would be “virtually impossible for DCF staff to contact 700 households on May 31, 2023 to retract the prior communications that the (motel) program was ending on that date,” they said. And continuing the program for even 30 days for those that were supposed to be out June 1 would cost $3.2 million — cash the state has not budgeted for.