Sitting on a curb behind the Colchester Quality Inn on Thursday and surrounded by all of her belongings packed into grocery bags, Rebecca Bussard was crying.
Her phone in her hand, she said she had been on hold for an hour and 20 minutes, waiting for someone from the state to answer with the hope that she could line up another motel room to live in. When someone finally picked up, they told her she was ineligible.
As an eleventh-hour attempt to block the eviction of roughly 800 unhoused people like Bussard from a state-funded shelter program played out in court Thursday morning, individuals who have been staying at motels around Vermont packed up their belongings, and, in some cases, were still trying to figure out where they would sleep.
Thursday marked the first of several waves of evictions planned for this spring and summer, as the state winds down pandemic-era programs that have sheltered an estimated 80% of Vermont’s unhoused population in motels. In total, about 2,800 people are due to lose their shelter.
In an attempt to buy more time for people being pushed out of motels, Vermont Legal Aid filed a class-action suit earlier this week. But on Thursday afternoon, a Vermont Superior Court judge denied the temporary restraining order sought by the nonprofit legal group for low-income Vermonters.
And even before the court decision came down, unhoused Vermonters had begun to move out of their motel rooms.
Bussard said she had accidentally slept past the 11 a.m. checkout time, and hotel management entered her room about 45 minutes later to tell her it was time to leave. One employee was kind, she said, telling her she had enough time to get her things together. Then another employee came back into the room. “She was like, ‘You got one minute,’” Bussard recalled.
After moving out her belongings, Bussard sat outside and waited for friends to call her. She didn’t have a plan on where to go.
Employees at the inn declined to comment.
At the nearby Motel 6, a resident named Paul, who declined to give his last name, had also lost his housing Thursday morning. His belongings packed and in the motel lobby, he stood on the sidewalk, waiting for a ride. He was heading to Bristol for work.
Paul said he had been living at the motel for two months. Asked where he would stay, he responded, “I don’t know. Live in a tent I guess?”
Brenda Siegel, a housing advocate and former gubernatorial candidate, was also at the Motel 6 speaking with those who were being evicted. She described what she had seen Thursday as “dystopian.”
“I’m getting a lot of calls of people that have severe medical conditions or have been miscategorized by the state,” Siegel said. “I have not talked to a single person who’s like — ‘Oh, yeah, I have a friend to go to,’ or ‘I have an apartment to go to.’ Everyone’s going outside, across the entire state. People don’t have transportation. They have all their stuff with them.”
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Siegel continued. “And we caused it.”
Service providers in Chittenden County are bracing for the impact.
“There are a significant number of people exiting the motels around the state today,” said Paul Dragon, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. “We’re going to see this most obviously in Chittenden County and in Burlington. And, as you know, many people don’t have another option, so they don’t have a home to go to.”
The organization has been passing out sleeping bags and tents and directing people toward camping areas because “there are no safe parking or safe camping sites around the state or in the city that have been designated for this,” he said.
“People will be staying outside in all sorts of weather,” Dragon said, as temperatures soared to the low 90s in several parts of the state. “The weather’s going to break this weekend, but today is very, very hot, and the summer months will continue to get hot.”
Dragon said the organization operates a cooling shelter at Feeding Chittenden on North Winooski Avenue that has been busy over the last several weeks. Earlier this week, staff saw 160 people come through the shelter in one day.
“I think the problem is, we’re getting overwhelmed at some of these sites,” he said.
Jonathan Farrell, director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter in Burlington, said Thursday that the organization has been working with local motel residents in the past few days to try to find them places to stay.
Residents reported a mix of plans, according to Farrell — renting rooms at motels, staying in shelters, moving in with friends or family, camping or living out of their car.
Others still had no plan. “I think a lot of folks really hoped or expected that program would be extended once again,” he said.
All of COTS’ single-person shelter beds, family beds and affordable housing units are full, he noted — a trend reported by shelter providers throughout the state.
Farrell said he’d like to see the state intervene with a broad, centralized system to coordinate housing and services for people exiting the motel system. “(It) would be far more efficient than trying to track people down as they bounce around in motel rooms,” he said.
In Washington County, the first wave of exits was more muted than expected after one hotel owner, Anil Sachdev, announced that his properties would allow those due to leave June 1 an extra 15-day grace period. Rick DeAngelis, the co-executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven, which operates several shelters in the area, estimated that this meant at least half of the 80 people initially expected to check out of motels in the county on Thursday received a two-week reprieve.
Speaking from a hot parking lot at the Barre Quality Inn, where staff said 15 people in the program left between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, Washington County Mental Health executive director Mary Moulton said only a “handful” of residents were headed to campsites that day. But already, she said, local service providers had discovered at least two motel residents with “significant medical needs.”
Both were leaving motels that day with no idea about where to go.
“My concern is that those that had no plan, that were elders with medical conditions — they just cannot camp. In this heat, it would be a life risk,” she said.
Service providers were able to locate crisis beds for these individuals, she said, though she stressed that these were temporary solutions. And she expressed trepidation about what was to come.
“As we increase the numbers we will have more challenges that we can’t meet along those lines,” she said.
In the southeastern hub town of Brattleboro, seven motels have been sheltering one of every 10 Vermonters on state vouchers. To prepare for the end of the program, local government and human services leaders have met for a month and are seeking funds for a regional emergency facility. But the only solution they could offer Thursday was camping — although not on municipal land.
“Illegal encampments put vulnerable people at increased risk for assault, drug use, disease, human trafficking, and are not safe or responsible,” Brattleboro Town Manager John Potter said in a statement. “There is no camping allowed on town property by ordinance and we plan to enforce this policy on a priority basis for public health and public safety reasons.”
Brattleboro’s emergency housing response team is challenged by two factors. The first: The Groundworks Collaborative, a local private nonprofit agency that targets homelessness and hunger, has yet to reopen its 30-bed Morningside House shelter, which closed in April after a social worker was murdered there.
Groundworks has a second 34-bed shelter on South Main Street, but that’s only partially open as staffers ramp up services put on pause after the death of their colleague. And even at full capacity, the agency has only a fraction of the beds needed for the estimated 200 or more locals — including some 50 children — who lack housing.
“It’s incredibly painful to look somebody in the eye and say the only thing that I have to provide for you today is a tent and a sleeping bag,” Groundworks Executive Director Josh Davis said this week on Brattleboro selectboard member Peter Case’s podcast. “For better or for worse, that’s all we got right now.”
Brattleboro leaders, calling for local “respect and empathy,” have asked the state to designate “emergency dispersed camping areas” on land owned and managed by the state government.
“We are hoping that the state and the community can step up in other ways to help support what could end up being a homeless refugee-like crisis in Brattleboro,” Potter said.
Ethan Weinstein contributed reporting.