Vermont headlines from 2013 report on a state voucher crisis for temporary lodging. Photo illustration by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2013, national headlines spelled out two historic firsts: the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking of a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and the imminent start of then-President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Reporters in the Green Mountain State, for their part, were advising of another unprecedented event.

“Today, Vermonters suddenly made homeless usually qualify for a state-funded motel room,” one newspaper article began. “So why might they receive only a locally donated tent or sleeping bag if facing the same plight next month?”

Throughout its history, the state has tried to address homelessness in a variety of ways — from “poor farms” in the 1800s to a reliance on private boarding houses and psychiatric institutions in the 1900s.

A decade ago, state government hoped for a better solution by growing its emergency housing voucher program. But faced with unexpectedly high bills, the Legislature slashed the motel budget during its 2013 session, forcing social service providers to scramble to help those about to lose their lodging.

“I’m in favor of shifting from an emergency crisis system to one that’s more preventive, but there needs to be a bridge between the two,” Joshua Davis, head of Brattleboro’s Groundworks Collaborative shelter and support program, told a reporter at the time. “We want to be able to offer something and don’t have much else.”

A decade later, the state has seen another expansion of its emergency housing voucher program — most recently funded by federal Covid-19 money — followed by a drastic cut due to unsustainable costs.

“It’s disheartening that you could almost use the same quotes I had from 10 years ago about what’s going on right now,” Davis said last week upon the end of adverse weather lodging. “We collectively haven’t made much progress.”

The state spent more than $100,000 in 2013 to house people at Rutland’s Economy Inn, pictured here a decade ago. The property is now an Econo Lodge, which was paid nearly $1 million for temporary lodging during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Kevin O’Connor

‘Dealing with the consequences’

Experts cite a few differences between circumstances in 2013 and today — starting with numbers that once seemed high but now show how much the problem has exploded.

In 2008, the state relaxed its rules that once limited motel aid to those fleeing a fire, natural disaster or domestic violence. New guidelines opened the program to almost anyone suddenly made homeless who required temporary lodging for up to three months.

Applicants rose from 548 households in 2008 to 2,851 families by 2013. The state’s annual bill, once $500,000, escalated eightfold over those five years to $4 million. (In comparison, the state has spent nearly $200 million to shelter 1,800 households for longer periods since March 2020.)

State government saw the 2013 cost increase just after it unveiled an ambitiously titled “Vermont’s Plan to End Homelessness.”

“By any measure, too many of our fellow Vermonters are without housing today,” the 16-page report began. “In the same way that the causes of the problem are varied, so too are the solutions.”

The 2013 plan called for more statistical study, affordable housing and economic and employment support.

“State policy makers should always seek to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of existing programs,” it added. “For example, the state should reduce reliance on hotels and motels and move towards affordable permanent housing.”

In that vein, 2013 leaders called for cutting the lodging budget. As a quick fix, a motel room at a then-average daily rate of $57 provided a bed and bathroom for up to 84 days, they said, but didn’t offer a kitchen, incentive to find shelter with friends or relatives, or a path toward permanent housing.

In contrast, leaders said money spent on a three-month motel stay could be funneled into a rental subsidy to supplement the cost of an apartment for a full year.

As a result, the 2013 Legislature slashed annual motel spending by more than half, to $1.5 million of its then $1.4 billion general fund budget. To offset the $2.5 million cut, the state said it would allocate $3.8 million more for transitional and permanent housing. But local social service workers feared problems when the state unveiled specifics just four days before their scheduled start.

“Where are these people going to go when they are homeless and shelters are full?” Erhard Mahnke, then coordinator of the Burlington-based Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, wrote legislative leaders. “The rules were developed without any prior input whatsoever from community partners that will be on the front lines, dealing with the consequences.”

Lucie Fortier, the now-retired director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center day shelter, inventories donated tents and sleeping bags in 2013 in anticipation of a state cut in emergency housing assistance. Photo by Kevin O’Connor

‘Intensity and complexity has increased’

Amid public outcry, the state delayed action by a month to consult with local social service agencies on a transition plan.

“We can’t walk away from the budget — it is the law — but if by working together we can make some changes that will serve more people, we will consider that,” David Yacovone, then commissioner of the state Department for Children and Families, said at the time. “It’s my hope we may be able to reduce our reliance on motels even further — but not just yet.”

That didn’t happen. Six months later, at the start of 2014, the state already had “overspent” its $1.5 million lodging budget for the fiscal year, it acknowledged in a report.

Facing the same problem five years later, the state released an update to what it renamed “Vermont Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.” Its first priority remained the same: “Increase the number of homes affordable to Vermonters.”

Even so, temporary lodging has continued to attract the most public and press attention — especially when the Covid-19 pandemic brought a massive influx of federal funds. Since the spring of 2020, the state has tapped up to $200,000 of that money per night to provide motel rooms to as many as 2,800 people, records show.

As in the past, beneficiaries lack financial resources. But increasingly, many also struggle with substance use or mental health issues, social service providers add.

“The landscape of what it looked like then versus now in terms of intensity and complexity has increased a lot over the last 10 years,” Davis said in Brattleboro last week.

Local agencies point to dozens of programs that have helped hundreds of Vermonters find shelter and support in the past decade. But with demand outstripping supply, every success is countered by another story about the need for more temporary lodging and permanent housing.

“Unless there is a medium- and a long-term strategy, we’ll be dealing with the same crisis,” Angus Chaney, who helped author “Vermont’s Plan to End Homelessness” and now heads Rutland’s Homeless Prevention Center, said during one of the most recent voucher crises in 2021.

Chaney and colleagues point to the fact that the rate of Vermont home growth, which rose an average of 1% annually before 2010, is expected to slow to less than 0.2% each year by 2025, according to the latest Vermont Housing Needs Assessment.

“Based on these projections, Vermont will need to increase the state’s total housing stock by about 5,800 primary homes before 2025,” the assessment says, “to meet expected demand among new households while also housing the state’s homeless.”

The challenge was no easier a decade ago, when Yacovone, then commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, called a reporter to say that he was stuck — both on his cellphone in the heat of summer traffic, as well as in the bigger jam of that year’s emergency housing crisis.

“It’s a very hard job,” Yacovone said in 2013. “We’re balancing limited resources and seemingly unlimited needs.”

Now retired, Yacovone says the questions and answers haven’t changed.

“People will say we can’t do things because Vermonters can’t afford it,” he said from his Morristown home this month. “Yet the pressures and trauma of homelessness will manifest themselves. Perhaps not in a line in the state budget, but, believe me, somebody will pay the cost.”

VTDigger's Brattleboro reporter.