Halfway Hotels
 Vermont's quick fix for homelessness
Investigation by Laura Krantz & Cory Dawson
 

You check into your motel, plop down and the bed crinkles. You pull back a cigarette-burned bedspread, threadbare sheets, and find a bed-bug infested mattress wrapped in plastic and duct tape.

The carpet smells like dog urine. From across the parking lot, other guests stare.

And you may have to live in this room for 28 days.

To top it all off, your fiancé’s mother just died, you’ve been laid off, and your two children want to go to the playground.

This is the story of Sara Bowen and her family’s first journey into homelessness, which began with 10 days in the shabby Budget Inn in Barre last month.

And it is the story of thousands of homeless Vermonters that the Department for Children and Families houses each year in motels from Newport to Brattleboro.

Chrystal Stilwell set up a baby bassinet between two motel beds for her 1-month-old son. Wade Johnson Jr. cooked canned food in motel microwaves for 36 days.

Vermont spent $3.2 million last year on motels for homeless families like these. In the past five years, state spending on vouchers ballooned. State officials say they’re creating better alternatives. Meanwhile, plenty of people still end up at the Budget Inn.

Some of the motels the state uses, including the Barre Budget Inn, are unsafe and unsanitary. That plastic on the mattress? It’s to entomb the bed bugs.

Local officials in Barre also found loose wires, piles of trash and holes in the walls at the Knoll Motel, Hollow Inn and Budget Inn. Police in Rutland respond five days a week to the Economy Inn and Suites, where voucher recipients often create disturbances.

And although the state is supposed to enforce motel health and safety codes, inspectors work from 40-year-old state rules that do not address bed bugs or long-term guests.

Meanwhile, housing advocates say the problem is bigger than dirty motel rooms. The lack of affordable housing and lack of programs to prevent homelessness, are the harder, and more important, problems to tackle. If the state dealt with these issues, people would never end up at the Budget Inn in the first place, they say.


 Cassidy and Kaydence Bowen play in a puddle in the parking lot of the Budget Inn
Chrystal Stilwell and her newborn son Logan in their room at the Budget Inn
Part 1: FROM CIGARETTE BUTTS TO DOG FECES

Matthew Cetin, the city’s fire marshal, found serious problems at eight motels and has revved up an “aggressive inspection process” to bring the facilities up to code.

Cetin found cigarette butts and dog feces and bed bugs in rooms. Many motels were just plain run down, he said.

At the Budget Inn on North Main Street he documented mold, holes in the wall, dangling outlets, cooking devices, missing carbon monoxide detectors and people sleeping on bare mattresses.

“These are the same conditions you may find in somebody’s home, but not what you would expect in a hotel,” he said.

At other motels he documented exposed wires, shaky steps and railings and piles of trash that had been building up for a year.

Barre officials struggle with how to handle motels that allow long-term guests. Some people who live in motels do not receive state vouchers and pay out of pocket. Some live in motels for more than a year. Under Vermont law someone who rents a room for longer than 30 days becomes a tenant, but motels often don’t follow housing codes that landlords must obey.

The city of Barre sent violation notices to motels for ignoring housing codes and the motels appealed them, Cetin said.

Barre officials have also sued the Budget Inn over long-term stays. David Singh, who owns the Budget Inn and Knoll Motel, declined to comment for this story.

Meanwhile, state health inspectors, who also inspect motels, seem mostly absent, Cetin said.

The director of the state’s health inspection division said her nine inspectors visit Vermont’s 4,600 restaurants and 900 hotels once a year and more often if they receive complaints, such as one in April about the Knoll Motel in Barre about a missing smoke detector and piles of garbage.

At the Budget Inn, state inspectors in April said rooms 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24 were out of service for “remodeling.” Many of those rooms also failed local inspections six months prior.

Allen Kentner, who lives at the Knoll Motel and helps with maintenance jobs there and at the Budget Inn, opposes the push for higher standards by local and state officials.

“Last year it could have been OK but this year it’s different, it’s fail,” he said. It costs the motels thousands to remodel and update features that in the end don’t pass inspection, he said.

The majority of establishments do pass inspections, according to Elisabeth Wirsing, chief of the state food and lodging inspection program.

Inspectors are enforcing 1975 codes that don’t address concerns specific to long-term stays and how often rooms should be cleaned. The state plans to draft new regulations and seek input.

I.J. Patel at the Hollow Inn just down the road reserves about five of his 41 rooms for state voucher guests.

“Most of the time they take care of themselves,” Patel said.

Patel said state inspections found only minor issues. Inspection reports told a different story. (See the report posted at the end of this story.)

Barre City Fire Marshal Matt Cetin speaks to us in his office in Barre
Allen Kentner, maintenance worker at the Budget Inn and Knoll Motel
Part 1: FROM CIGARETTE BUTTS TO DOG FECES

Matthew Cetin, the city’s fire marshal, found serious problems at eight motels and has revved up an “aggressive inspection process” to bring the facilities up to code.

Cetin found cigarette butts and dog feces and bed bugs in rooms. Many motels were just plain run down, he said.

At the Budget Inn on North Main Street he documented mold, holes in the wall, dangling outlets, cooking devices, missing carbon monoxide detectors and people sleeping on bare mattresses.

“These are the same conditions you may find in somebody’s home, but not what you would expect in a hotel,” he said.

At other motels he documented exposed wires, shaky steps and railings and piles of trash that had been building up for a year.

Barre officials struggle with how to handle motels that allow long-term guests. Some people who live in motels do not receive state vouchers and pay out of pocket. Some live in motels for more than a year. Under Vermont law someone who rents a room for longer than 30 days becomes a tenant, but motels often don’t follow housing codes that landlords must obey.

The city of Barre sent violation notices to motels for ignoring housing codes and the motels appealed them, Cetin said.

Barre officials have also sued the Budget Inn over long-term stays. David Singh, who owns the Budget Inn and Knoll Motel, declined to comment for this story.

Meanwhile, state health inspectors, who also inspect motels, seem mostly absent, Cetin said.

The director of the state’s health inspection division said her nine inspectors visit Vermont’s 4,600 restaurants and 900 hotels once a year and more often if they receive complaints, such as one in April about the Knoll Motel in Barre about a missing smoke detector and piles of garbage.

At the Budget Inn, state inspectors in April said rooms 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24 were out of service for “remodeling.” Many of those rooms also failed local inspections six months prior.

Allen Kentner, who lives at the Knoll Motel and helps with maintenance jobs there and at the Budget Inn, opposes the push for higher standards by local and state officials.

“Last year it could have been OK but this year it’s different, it’s fail,” he said. It costs the motels thousands to remodel and update features that in the end don’t pass inspection, he said.

The majority of establishments do pass inspections, according to Elisabeth Wirsing, chief of the state food and lodging inspection program.

Inspectors are enforcing 1975 codes that don’t address concerns specific to long-term stays and how often rooms should be cleaned. The state plans to draft new regulations and seek input.

I.J. Patel at the Hollow Inn just down the road reserves about five of his 41 rooms for state voucher guests.

“Most of the time they take care of themselves,” Patel said.

Patel said state inspections found only minor issues. Inspection reports told a different story. (See the report posted at the end of this story.)


BED BUGS 
 

Under current code, the state can’t punish motels for bed bugs. Since the pests haven’t been proven to transmit disease, they are not considered a public health threat, said Elisabeth Wirsing, who heads the food and lodging inspection program at the state health department.

But inspectors do work with motels to deal with bed bug and other pest problems, she said.

Allen Kentner, the maintenance man at the Knoll Motel and Budget Inn, said he eliminated bed bugs at both motels. His trick is to put plastic over the mattress and tape it shut.

“We used the sprays on them that’s meant for them and then we wrap them in plastic. It chokes them,” he said.

Cetin said only powerful heat treatment kills bed bugs.

Listen to the conflicting viewpoints. 


IMAGES OF THE KNOLL MOTEL TAKEN DURING A BARRE CITY INSPECTION
Photos courtesy of Matt Cetin/Barre City Fire Dept. 
 Room Interiors
Basement
BACK ON YOUR FEET AFTER YOU'RE NOT

Into the bed bugs and filth come homeless families, many with children 6 years old or younger. Some are victims of catastrophe, others victims of themselves. For many it’s both.

“As soon as they said you’re going to the Budget Inn the only thing that crossed my mind was the shooting that was here,” Bowen said.

The family has moved three times since 18-month-old Kaydence was born. Bowen and her fiancé Shawn Sedor have never been homeless before.

“It’s such a slap in my own face. I would never have thought that I would put my kids in this situation,” she said.

The family was kicked out of a rent-to-own trailer and qualified for 28 days in the motel but DCF cut the stay short when they found out Sedor had a small retirement savings account.

DCF requires most voucher recipients to pay 30 percent of their income toward the motel and use any savings. Bowen and Sedor also pay nearly $500 a month for their car, loan payments to two for-profit online universities, $75 a month to store belongings.

At the other end of the L-shaped motel in July was Chrystal Stilwell, 28, with her boyfriend and then 4-week-old son. Life has thrown her curveballs, Stilwell says, but she also lives with the consequences of some admittedly poor choices.

“It’s definitely hard to get back on your feet after you’re not,” she said.

Stilwell’s income, derived from food stamps, Social Security disability and a state grant, amounts to about $1,600 total per month. She hesitates to get a job because she would lose her $772 monthly disability pay.

People shouldn’t be required to use part of their income toward motels because they need to be saving for an apartment, she said.

Stilwell doesn’t eat much because the Subutex she takes to quell her drug addiction leaves her with little appetite. She has had run-ins with DCF child protection workers, lost all or partial custody of her three older children and worries they could take her 2-month-old away.

She can't legally drive because an ex-boyfriend totaled her car, and she has several motor vehicle charges, she said.

Stilwell qualified for a discounted apartment through the federal Section 8 housing program, but lost it when she was evicted after a 16-year-old she let live with her trashed the place, she said.

She was evicted from the most recent place she lived, with her mother, after reporting safety code violations to the fire marshal, she said. While she was pregnant she had bronchitis and lost her job after a longer than expected hospital stay, she said.

At first Stilwell said the social worker at the community organization that helps people find housing was hard to reach and not helpful. A few weeks later, when the organization, Capstone Community Action, helped her find a 1.5 bedroom apartment on Spaulding Street and paid the deposit, she sung their praises.

Stilwell didn’t feel safe at the Budget Inn. “There’s a lot of people in this hotel that aren’t all mentally stable,” she said.

Earlier this summer guests at the Budget called the police to report a man who had a knife in the parking lot, she said.

Barre police said they don’t have a record of that incident, but it doesn’t take long for Chief Tim Bombardier to query his database and find many records of mischief at motels, some caused by people on vouchers.

“There’s some level where, OK, we as people or as an agency deserve some blame, but we’re not the total problem,” he said.

The chief thinks motels are a bad temporary solution for homelessness. He wouldn’t house a family at the Budget Inn, or stay there himself.

“The system needs to change,” he said. Two or three nights would be one thing, he says, but there are houses and apartments for rent in Barre.

Bombardier said some people have unreasonable expectations about where they want to live. Others choose to be homeless, he says.

The problem is not in Barre alone. In Rutland, Police Chief Jim Baker said his officers respond to the Economy Inn and Suites on U.S. 7 about five times a week.

“It’s quickly becoming a location where we’re called more than other locations in the city,” Baker said.

City officials have threatened to withdraw the license for the Economy Inn, but hesitate because they know it’s a haven for homeless people who have nowhere else to go.

The motel needs 24-hour supervision, for starters, Baker said. And state money funneled to “shoddy” establishments like this one create no incentive for them to clean up, Baker said.

Seven Days has reported similar problems with motels used by the state in Burlington.
 Chrystal Stilwell and her newborn son Logan. Chrystal speaks about  the effect drug use has played in her life. 
Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier in his office. Bombardier speaks about taking responsibility for yourself.
Sara Bowen watch her daughters Cassidy and Kaydence play in a puddle at the Budget Inn in Barre.
CASH FLOWS FROM THE STATE TO MOTELS

While local officials, police and people like Bowen and Stilwell are frustrated with the motels, the state says the program is essential to keep families, disabled people and the elderly off the streets.

The state funnels more and more money into the voucher program each year.

Vouchers are part of an $11 million DCF program known as General Assistance, which sometimes also pays for rent, mortgage payments, fuel and utilities, personal items and medical needs. DCF says it uses motels when other housing options, like crashing with family, friends or at a shelter, isn’t possible.

People must meet several criteria, including that they have exhausted all other income and resources, like Sedor’s 401(k). People are allotted up to 28 days if they are considered part of the “vulnerable population,” while those who are victims of “catastrophic situations” get up to 84 days, usually seven days at a time.

DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone said depending on temperatures this winter (eligibility criteria loosen in the winter) he thinks he can come in on budget.

“If we can get more shelter in the Burlington area, where most of the pressures are, I believe I can come in on budget,” he said.

Shelters are supposed to be the first option for people who need a place to sleep. Yacovone said they are often full, or people don’t want to use them. DCF is strategizing now about how to make more shelter beds available for the winter, he said.

Meanwhile, DCF knows people abuse the voucher system, he said.

Yacovone said he was surprised to learn about the unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the Barre motels. He vowed to visit them and said people who find the rooms unsatisfactory should report them to the state health department.

DCF asks the health department for inspection reports about motels it uses to house people and assumes motels that pass are acceptable, he said. People should report problems to DCF, he said.

“We won't fix it unless people call it in,” he said.

In response to police concerns, Yacovone said vouchers alone are not the problem.

“If they’re not in the motel, they’re in the community,” he said.

Yacovone said the increase in the number of people using motel vouchers is linked to the lingering effects of the recession and a 2009 decision to loosen eligibility rules.

A new law that took effect in May reduced the percentage of income people must pay in order to stay in motels from 50 percent of the cost to 30 percent. Extremely poor people, such as a family of four making less than $1,064 per month, would not be required to contribute.

Bowen and Stilwell said the money they put toward hotel stays leaves them with less cash to save for an apartment. Yacovone said people should contribute what they can. The median rent in Barre for a two-bedroom apartment is $950 per month, according to the Vermont Housing Data project.

There are few caseworkers to help people find housing but DCF officials say the system has greatly improved over the last 30 years.

Yacovone touted several efforts DCF uses to help people find apartments and avoid becoming homeless in the first place.

The state this year doubled the funding for the Vermont Subsidy Program, a state version of Section 8 housing, which brought total spending up to $1 million.

DCF also streamlined the application process for vouchers recently, after a 2012 report characterized the administrative structure for obtaining vouchers as “seriously flawed.”

In addition, the state in 2013 worked to build more room in shelters, especially in Chittenden County, where the bulk of motel placements occur. Shelters and friends and family are always supposed to be a first resort for homeless Vermonters.

The Champlain Housing Trust purchased Harbor Place, a former motel that has been transformed into transitional housing. The facility has 30 rooms at a rate of $38 per night versus the average cost of $60 a night in other motels. Last winter 100 percent of the rooms were full.

The state keeps a spreadsheet of 147 hotels, motels and campgrounds where it sends families.

 WHAT IS GENERAL ASSISTANCE ?
 

Vermont Department for Children and Family rules define General Assistance (GA) as "an emergency financial assistance program for eligible applicant households whose emergency needs, according to department standards, cannot be met under any other assistance program administered by the department and cannot be relieved without the department's intervention.”

A person qualifies for 28 days if a member of the household:
A. Is 65 years old or older
B. receives SSI or SSDI
C. Is 6 years old or younger
D. Is in the third trimester of pregnancy

There is also a point system that qualifies other households with criteria including having an open case with child protection workers at DCF, being a disabled veteran and having been recently discharged from the hospital.

GA Housing Program Unduplicated Count of Households Served

The state also runs a rental subsidy program, an alternative to motels. Participants pay a percentage of their income toward rental costs and the state pays the difference directly to landlords, similar to the federal Section 8 program.

That program was allocated $1 million this year, double the amount from last year. The motel program got $2.4 million out of the total $11 million general assistance budget.

The program housed 57 people in 2013, according to DCF. The state paid an average amount of monthly rent of $642 and tenants paid about $293.

Families stayed on the program for an average of 11 months. About a third of the families moved off the program by December 2013 onto another subsidized housing program, a third moved off because their earnings increased and a third left because of non-compliance, according to DCF.

Source

 
 WHAT IS THE RENTAL SUBSIDY  PROGRAM?
BAND-AID, NOT SOLUTION
102% 
 

Data: (January-June 2014)

9,503 – emergency housing requests
6,932 – housing only requests granted
14,752 – total nights paid for
$60 – average cost per night
$892,422 average total costs

Primary stated cause of homelessness:
1. Domestic violence/child abuse
2. Other
3. Household conflict or change in size
4. Eviction with cause

84 maximum days per year for temporary housing for “catastrophic” circumstances
28 maximum days for “vulnerable populations”

Dave Yacovone, the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, said he was surprised to learn about the unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the Barre motels.
Austin Johnson lives in the Hilltop Motel with his parents.
Liz Genge, director of property management at Central Vermont Community Land Trust, is part of a team of service providers that meets weekly to address housing problems for homeless Vermonters.

The motel voucher program is the butt of criticism from many who work with the homeless.

Chris Curtis, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid who co-chairs the governor’s Pathways Out of Poverty council, says motels are a Band-Aid, not a solution.

“Housing homeless people in motels for less than a month on average is not a safe, long-term affordable housing solution,” Curtis said.

Yacovone says motels are an important temporary transition for moving homeless people into more permanent housing.

“It’s that fine line between enabling somebody and helping somebody to move toward independence,” he said.

Eric Peterson, a service coordinator at Capstone Community Action, said DCF not only issues the vouchers but also connects people with service organizations like his.

Capstone and other nonprofit social service agencies help people in the voucher program learn life skills and find apartments. But caseloads are heavy. The Capstone field worker in Barre, for example, juggles around 60 cases, connecting people with services and life skills classes.

“They definitely have a lot on their plate,” Peterson said.

Meanwhile, housing advocates are pushing for more affordable long-term choices. They are also trying to coax landlords into renting to tenants with rocky rental histories.

Erhard Mahnke, coordinator for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, says rental assistance and places to live with in-house services are especially needed.

Wade Johnson Jr. and his family spent about 40 days in motels in Barre this year. His Capstone worker told them she was too busy to help, he said.

The family is frustrated because the state planned to cancel their $700 per month Reach Up assistance when they reached the five-year maximum. Later DCF said it had made a mistake, Johnson’s wife, Christy, said.

They also spent a few days living in their car after DCF said they weren’t eligible for a motel. Then officials said they made a mistake and granted another voucher.

“We feel like little kids. The state feels like the parents and we’re the little kids and they tell us everything they can and cannot do,” Johnson said.

Johnson has a work-related injury and his wife can’t lift more than 5 pounds, he said. They volunteer to maintain their Reach Up assistance and receive about $600 in food stamps.

Johnson cooks canned food in the microwave of the Hollow Inn, one of several motels the family has stayed in over the course of a month, but he misses making his specialty -- spaghetti sauce.

Their two boys Austin, 9, and James, 3, said they like living in motels. They also like eating lots of cereal. The Hilltop Motel “made me feel bigger because of how small the room was,” Austin said.

The family was living with Christy’s parents but left after an argument over how to raise Austin and James, Johnson said.

The Johnsons' problems are not uncommon. Job loss, expensive health problems and chronic poverty are frequent reasons why people become homeless. Local landlords know who the problem renters are and “once bitten, are twice shy,” as Peterson puts it.

The common denominator is instability. Circumstances that lead to homelessness are half avoidable and half beyond a person's control, Peterson says.

“There’s usually a lot of other crisis going on in their life, it’s not just the housing,” Peterson said.

In Barre, Liz Genge is part of a relatively new team of service providers that meets weekly. The group cuts across agencies and is comprised of housing advocates, local churches, nonprofit groups, mental health workers, Department of Corrections staff and others.

Genge, the director of property management at Central Vermont Community Land Trust, is one of several housing providers at the meetings. Over the course of two hours, the group discusses options for about 50 families each week.

Similar teams are popping up across the state. It's part of a new strategy to bring together social service providers in “catch-all” meetings to discuss clients who use multiple services or who could benefit from services they don’t know about.

The land trust rents to low-income people but tenants have to make enough money to afford the rent.

“It hurts when you can’t rent to them. It’s hard to say, ‘sorry you don’t qualify.’ Where are they going at night?” Genge said.

Household income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Barre City: $36,000. Assuming housing amounts to one-third of household income.

Percentage of average monthly Social Security income ($762) needed for a one-bedroom apartment in Barre City: 102 percent.

Source

In each of the past three years the state budgeted about $1.5 million for emergency housing. That amount has consistently been inadequate to cover the cost.

This year the Legislature added $2.6 million to the program in the mid-year budget adjustment cycle. Budget writers asked DCF to use motels vouchers less frequently in the coming year.