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Many will have to leave motel shelters after July 1

Groundworks opens new drop-in site to ease transition; estimates 20 percent will not qualify for other housing

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—After sheltering in local motels during the COVID-19 pandemic, many folks will soon have to find another place to sleep as the state’s emergency policies change and expire.

With policy changes taking effect in Vermont’s General Assistance (GA) emergency motel voucher program, Groundworks Collaborative is putting the final details in place to open its new Drop-In Center on July 1.

On June 1, the voucher program started to reintroduce eligibility requirements for new participants seeking shelter in motels.

“Eligibility requirements had been largely suspended throughout the pandemic, which allowed for a temporary interruption of nearly all homelessness in Vermont,” according to a news release from the nonprofit agency, which provides food, shelter, and supportive services to families and individuals who are facing food and housing insecurities.

“The state says it has been spending the equivalent of the typical annual program budget each month throughout the pandemic — roughly $5 million per month, largely paid for through [Federal Emergency Management Agency] disaster relief funds — to shelter Vermonters experiencing homelessness in motels currently closed to the public,” the news release continued.

The Quality Inn on Putney has been housing most of those using local motels as shelter, with Groundworks overseeing the program.

Challenging times and helping hands

Laura Chapman serves as shelter administrative coordinator for Groundworks. In partnership with the shelter program coordinator, she supports implementation of shelter programs.

“This looks like a wide variety of tasks: direct support of both clients and staff, ensuring our spaces are as safe as possible, that our staff and clients have the supplies that they need, coordinating with other agencies like the Vermont Department of Health to support health clinics, working with the Windham County Humane Society to bring animal care to our clients’ service animals and pets, just to name a few,” Chapman says.

Earlier this year, two people of about 100 living in the Quality Inn tested positive for COVID-19 within about a week of each other, precipitating a two-week quarantine for the entire group.

“With guidance from the Vermont Department of Health and other state agencies, we went into full quarantine,” Chapman says. “This was incredibly hard for all involved, especially the clients. Our staff was phenomenal, pivoting within a moment’s notice, building new systems that included delivering supplies and meals door-to-door along with human compassion and support offered to every room at least three times a day on two floors and without an elevator.”

“Because of the enormity of the added workload, we took unprecedented actions and put out an agency-wide call for help,” she says.

Volunteers from the agency’s board of directors helped with all the tasks, “including cleaning, emptying the garbage, and shopping for supplies,” Chapman says, noting that Executive Director Josh Davis “spent a shift cleaning out the freezer so wearied advocates wouldn’t have to.”

Chapman adds that Groundworks also received donations of plants to bring cheer and donations of money to provide for those who did not have access to income while quarantined.

“They were some of the most trying times, but I couldn’t have been more proud to have been a Groundworker in those moments,” she says.

Back on the streets

Starting June 1, eligibility requirements began to apply to people new to accessing the motel program. And as of July 1, some people staying in motels will no longer qualify for the program and will have to leave.

Groundworks estimates the change will mean roughly 20 percent of current participants will no longer qualify.

Of those who remain in the motels, many will qualify for an added 84 days in the program. But that will lead to another surge of people and families who will need to vacate their rooms in late September.

New facilities to provide beds for 34 people

The culmination of more than three years of planning, the new Groundworks Drop-In Center at 54 South Main St. will be flexible space that can serve as both daytime and overnight shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

The Drop-In Center includes showers, laundry machines, lockers, spaces to meet with case managers, phone, mail, and Internet access, as well as a stocked kitchen to prepare meals.

Thirty-four beds will be available when the space opens for 24-hour shelter in September 2021.

Groundworks will continue to split staff members between the motel program and the new day-shelter space.

The organization has also been amassing tents, tarps, and sleeping bags, buying them new and collecting usable donations, for those who will have no option but to camp after July 1.

Such donations may be delivered to the Quality Inn at 1380 Putney Rd. “Call the advocate on duty at 802-490-9446 when you arrive and someone will meet you at the front door under the portico,” the agency advises.

For more information about accessing emergency temporary housing, call the Vermont Economic Services Division at 800-479-6151 during regular business hours, or dial 211 after hours and on weekends.

‘The thing about extreme poverty is that it has little bias’

“We work with folks from many backgrounds that have found their way to us for a variety of reasons — mental health, addiction, physical injury, the pandemic, a home disaster, etc.,” says Groundworks’ Director of Development and Communications Libby Bennett.

“All culminating in extreme poverty,” she says.

“The interesting thing about extreme poverty is that it has little bias,” Bennett continued, noting statistics amassed by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness and the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance in their Vermont Point In Time Count project.

“If you look at the Vermont Point In Time Count, you can see that homelessness is made up of a more diverse spectrum of folks than the general population,” Bennett says.

She adds that many of the people they serve “are currently experiencing homelessness, others may have housing after one or more periods of homelessness, and others still may simply need help keeping food on the table. Our case management team works to provide housing navigation and stability services — helping folks access the resources they need to find housing and stay housed.”

Foodworks, Groundworks’ food shelf, provides two-week boxes of food to anyone who could use help, whether it is month-to-month support to stretch their 3SquaresVT benefits, or one-time help in a particularly challenging month.

“All areas of our work have grown significantly during the pandemic, and we have continued all of our services and added new staff and programs over the past year as well,” Bennett says.

Financial assistance available

According to Bennett, those in the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program received a letter last week from the Department of Children and Families Economic Services Division outlining two programs that could provide financial relief to people faced with the reality of losing shelter.

Those forced to vacate the Quality Inn and other motels might be eligible for a payment of $2,500, described as an “essential payment,” funded through the American Rescue Plan Act. The program is administered through Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA).

In addition, the state’s Rapid Resolution Housing Initiative, which is accepting applications through Wednesday, Sept. 1, is designed as “short-term or one-time financial help for individuals and families experiencing homelessness to achieve safe housing,” according to the nine-page application form.

The initiative, according to the form, “must be tied to a housing plan with an identified timeline to exit homelessness.” To qualify, applicants must be staying in a motel as part of the GAEHP, staying in an emergency shelter, or unsheltered.

The program will make up to $8,000 available for “rent, deposits, moving costs, past-due utility bills or rent, program fees, help with a car purchase or repair, and more” for anyone losing emergency shelter.

Bennett said that Groundworks staff will help clients navigate the respective application processes for the two programs.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #617 (Wednesday, June 16, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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