The Zampieri State Office Building in Burlington
The Zampieri State Office Building on Cherry Street in Burlington houses the Vermont Department of Health headquarters and other state offices. Wikimedia Commons photo

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance are seeking $4 million from the state to turn a state office building into an emergency shelter and to extend hotel stays for 165 “vulnerable households” in the county. 

Weinberger told reporters at a press conference Monday that the city sent its proposal to the Agency of Human Services last Thursday, the same day that hundreds of people were evicted from a pandemic-era emergency housing program that paid for unhoused people to stay in hotels and motels. 

Sarah Russell, Burlington’s special assistant to end homelessness, said local officials and advocates want to convert the mostly-vacant Zampieri state office building at 108 Cherry Street in downtown Burlington into a 50-person emergency shelter with a daytime drop-in center for up to 75 people. (The state announced in January that it hopes to sell the building, though Weinberger said he didn’t think the temporary emergency shelter would interfere with that plan.)

As the state winds down the pandemic-era program in several phases this summer, about 2,800 people stand to lose their shelter. Local officials and advocates have predicted many of them will end up unhoused in Chittenden County.

Last month, the Department for Children and Families, housed within the Agency of Human Services, solicited letters of interest to service providers around the state, including some of the 27 organizations that belong to the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance. The state was seeking proposals to expand shelters or other outreach programs to accommodate those being forced to exit the motel program. 

Recognizing that the local nonprofits that handle those services are already at capacity and short-staffed, the state also requested proposals for contractors to provide shelter staffing and services.

Russell acknowledged the staffing concerns could pose a challenge to opening a new shelter and said the city will consider working with a staffing agency to “ensure safe ratios of guests and staff on site at all times.”

The estimated cost for the emergency shelter is just over $2 million for one year, which includes roughly $100,000 to make the office spaces habitable, according to Russell.

The homeless alliance is also asking for between $1.7 million and $2 million to keep 165 “vulnerable households” in hotels long enough for them to find permanent housing, according to Will Towne, chief operating officer at Spectrum, a youth and family services nonprofit. Towne, who estimated the alliance could line up such housing by February 2024, said that “vulnerable” designation would include families, people with disabilities, those on home health or hospice, seniors and pregnant women.

Weinberger noted during the press conference that the Department for Children and Families remained committed to ending the hotel program. 

“We haven’t heard ‘yes’ yet,” Weinberger said. But, he continued, “I would not say this detailed plan, in this form with these estimates, has been explicitly rejected by the state either at this point.”

As for the emergency shelter at the state office building, Weinberger said, “I would say we have had more favorable response to this part of the proposal so far” compared to the hotel extension. If the state approves the shelter proposal, the city hopes to move quickly to open it this summer if possible.

The Democratic mayor, who said he does support “an orderly end to the troubled pandemic-era hotel program,” pointed as a possible funding source to $12 million that the Legislature set aside in its budget for shelter and services for those exiting the motels. Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the budget on May 27, criticizing lawmakers for spending too much and raising taxes. The Legislature will reconvene later this month to either override the governor’s veto or pass a new budget.

June 1 was the first day that the letters of interest could be sent to the state. Russell said state officials told her that as of that day, they had already received 44 proposals.

Later on Monday, a version of the Chittenden County proposal was presented to the Burlington City Council, which held an extensive work session on homelessness. It doesn’t require council approval, but many members thanked Russell for the work.

“I’m definitely glad we have more of a plan than we had two weeks ago,” said Councilor Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1. But she suggested that the plan still falls short of the city doing “our share” to address the problem.

Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, praised the plan but said that “this could have come sooner.”

Several state legislators, including Rep. Troy Headrick, P/D-Burlington and Rep. Kate Logan, P/D-Burlington, attended Monday’s meeting. Noting this, Councilor Joan Shannon, D-South District, questioned why the state hadn’t done more to address the issue and pointed out that lawmakers had approved spending on other priorities, specifically mentioning free school lunches.

“In the hierarchy of needs, this need is great,” Shannon said.

VTDigger's Burlington reporter.