Updated at 5:56 p.m.
A Vermont Superior Court judge has denied a temporary restraining order sought by Vermont Legal Aid that would have blocked the eviction of roughly 800 unhoused individuals from a state-funded shelter program in motels on Thursday.
“Plaintiffs have not established the ‘clear’ right to relief that is necessary for the Court to issue preliminary injunctive relief,” Judge Timothy Tomasi wrote in a 16-page order issued just after 1 p.m.
Although Vermont Legal Aid “plainly alleged potential harm of high order,” the judge wrote, the organization did not convince him that the state had violated a law governing administrative rules nor the motel residents’ due process.
With federal cash now gone, the state is winding down a series of pandemic-era programs that shelter an estimated 80% 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 on Thursday.
The nonprofit legal group for low-income Vermonters filed a class-action suit on behalf of motel residents just this Tuesday, arguing not that the state could not end these benefits but that in doing so it had failed to follow the proper rule-making process and that motel occupants had not been given adequate notice.
The state relied on motel owners to distribute generalized handouts about the end of the program to unhoused individuals being sheltered there, and program participants received oral notice from case managers at the Department for Children and Families about whether they were eligible for further assistance or expected to leave.
During an expedited hearing that began a little after 8:30 a.m. on Thursday at the Washington County courthouse, Vermont Legal Aid attorney Michael Benvenuto told Tomasi that there was “no precedent” for the situation. With the state going through several iterations of its emergency housing programs and operating for a time during the pandemic with administrative waivers in place that suspended pre-Covid rules, motel residents were left navigating a “complicated, tangled web.”
“It’s just not reasonable to expect any participant or anyone in the public to really understand what they were found to be eligible for, or how the program is actually operating, or what rules govern their eligibility on any given day,” he said.
The state pushed back, saying that the June 1 deadline at play had been written into law by the Legislature, and didn’t require the rule-making process or notice that Legal Aid claimed it did. And its attorney argued that the shelter provided was not an entitlement but a time-limited benefit that program participants continually needed to re-apply for.
“I want to emphasize that all of these programs are temporary emergency housing programs. Every single one of these programs requires reauthorization on at least a monthly basis, if not more,” Vermont Solicitor General Eleanor Spottswood told the court. “So every month, a participant in the program needs to call and they’re eligible for another month. This is how the program works.”
The underlying lawsuit will continue, Vermont Legal Aid said in a statement after Tomasi’s decision came down. The state has until July 1 to respond to the complaint.
“We are obviously very disappointed with this decision, but the Court acted quickly to schedule this hearing and acknowledged that homelessness is an imminent threat to our clients,” wrote Laura Gans, the lead counsel for the nonprofit. “We continue to pursue all remaining legal remedies as this case unfolds.”