If you are in the hotel program, don’t leave. And don’t take the money.
A message on one door at the Quality Inn, the primary facility in the region where the state has arranged for people experiencing homelessness to be sheltered throughout the pandemic.

If you are in the hotel program, don’t leave. And don’t take the money.

If we refuse to leave until we have safe, secure, permanent housing solutions, we can force the issue to end homelessness in Vermont now, as opposed to watching the housing crisis continue to kill our friends and neighbors.

BRATTLEBORO — Today - June 14, 2021 - began for me with a conversation about the ending of the hotel program that has housed Vermonters experiencing homelessness through the pandemic.

For us, there has been a sense that this is not for us, but rather to protect people who have homes and are able to hold down gainful employment. That this program was a way to ensure that “working families” didn't have to risk catching Covid (or homelessness) from Vermont's most vulnerable neighbors.

With that, there has still been a feeling of gratitude and relief, and hope that this will be the first step in real change - a more-civilized approach making sure every citizen of Vermont has their basic needs met with dignity.

First and foremost, I am a human being, and the folks I have lived in this hotel with for the last 15 months are also human beings. Each of us deserves to claim our birthright of unconditional love and oneness.

We deserve to enjoy the freedom of stability and the unity of community participation ... especially having our voices heard. We all need to be heard and seen as human beings worthy of grace and dignity.

As an individual experiencing homelessness in the state of Vermont I have a lot to say. I would like folks to start thinking about what is going on right now.

* * *

We have an unprecedented opportunity to end homelessness as we know it. If you are in the hotel program, don't leave! You have rights as a tenant and, with the courts backed up, we can force the hotel industry, and the threat of failed economic recovery, to lobby the state to find permanent solutions.

We are up against big government and our own economic insecurity, as the state of Vermont is about to pay people who are currently housed to leave the hotels so they don't have to evict us, calling it a “transition plan” out of concern for the possibility of a benefits cliff.

(A benefits cliff is when a vulnerable person has just enough money to disqualify them from the assistance they need. In a way, it is like having the rug pulled out from under you.)

I know it's going to be hard not to take the money. But if enough of us stay in the hotels, we can force the issue to end homelessness in Vermont now, as opposed to watching the housing crisis continue to kill our friends and neighbors.

If we stand up now and refuse to leave until we have safe, secure, permanent housing solutions, we can make a difference for ourselves and for the future of Vermont.

Trying to evict 2,700 people through the backed-up court system would take a very long time. It would basically consume the most lucrative tourist season we have and need after the last 15 months, between now and the beginning of winter, conceivably ruining the experiences that out-of-staters are desperate to come enjoy, now that Covid is seemingly waning.

As a Vermonter, you probably know how fragile our tourist economy is because we haven't diversified our industrial and business prospects - not even after the devastating effects of Tropical Storm Irene.

* * *

I hope when you are sitting around the kitchen table having conversations with your friends and family and loved ones, you will be able to imagine a future built upon a more-thoughtful and -civilized approach to how we care for ourselves and each other. Every political discussion, and every little economic impact is trying to resolve the fundamental questions of our existence: How do we care for ourselves and each other?

A former neighbor on State Forest Road in Townshend taught me what it means to be a good neighbor. She was a devout Christian, down-to-earth and practical, as well as deeply thoughtful, and I'm so grateful to have had such a great neighbor so early in my life after moving out of my parents house.

She taught me to be thankful for everything that happens to me, and when I asked her what our purpose here on Earth is, she said, “The longer I'm here, the more I think we are all just here to help each other.”

The wisdom she passed on to me has elevated these words to a place in my mind that inspires me and in part, gives me purpose each day to simply keep doing the best I am able.

This is a moment in our history we need to get right. As Gov. Scott himself said as we reached the 80-percent vaccination-rate milestone, “The better we do now, the better position we'll be [in] for the future.” (He also made it a point to describe the pandemic as a “once-in-a-century crisis.”)

This suggests there will be a normal or a new normal to go back to. I say no! This is the time for a paradigm shift in approach to the way we care for ourselves and each other.

* * *

The state is calling its program for the transition that homeless Vermonters face in the coming months the “Rapid Resolution Housing Initiative.”

That sounds great, right? Well, it's not necessarily great. They are going to pay people to move out of the hotel from which they would ordinarily have to be evicted because state law allows you to gain the rights of a tenant after 28 days.

Think about this for a moment: As of right now, if you are in the hotel program, you are still defined as homeless according to the definitions used by the housing agencies and organizations.

This is a benefit to you in terms of attaining affordable housing, because you are on a list that operates on a needs basis with criteria that places those with the highest needs at the top.

Length of homelessness is a contributing factor to rising up the list. The qualifications for this payout is “a rental unit or other safe option, such as family or friends.” If you move in with friends or family members, you could get up to $8,000. Well, where were these friends and relatives when I wasn't about to get this kind of money?

No doubt that is enough money to make a sincere go at starting over, maybe obtaining our own housing going forward -if we can also resolve the fundamental issues and barriers we have which contributed to our becoming homeless in the first place.

However, most people will not get that much money.

Except in special circumstances, most people will get up to $3,500 toward moving out of the hotels - still seemingly a good chunk of money, until you realize the cost of housing and the costs of everything else.

I'm certain that many are going to blow through that money long before winter comes.

Even with the ambitious affordable housing goals outlined by the governor and the Legislature, there is simply not a sustainable plan that will prevent the vast majority of people who experience housing insecurity (for many reasons) from becoming homeless again.

* * *

Now, here is the worst part: If you take the payout, your name on the abovementioned “coordinated entry” housing list goes to the bottom because the definition of homeless does not include living with friends and family members, or basically in any place that is “fit for human habitation.”

So if you obtain a safe alternative to having an apartment or couch surfing, you are unable to move up the list for affordable housing opportunities, therefore prolonging your ability to obtain that affordable housing.

But if you say you are living outside or in some other place not fit for human habitation, you are going to fall off the benefits cliff the governor has said he wants to avoid.

So you either risk losing housing opportunities for some short-term cash, or you move back outside and live in a tent.

* * *

Nearly 3,000 Vermonters are currently experiencing homelessness. The number of housing units that politicians are saying will be earmarked for the homeless - 600 units for homeless Vermonters - as well the rapid rehousing vouchers for families with children, simply don't add up to long-term sustainable housing for those of us who have experienced or are likely to experience chronic housing insecurity.

I will not deny the plan as it is now will be a big step in the right direction, but it is being sold as an unprecedented opportunity and it is simply another underhanded way of doing business as usual, without the input from the people who are living through the experience.

The rapid rehousing vouchers for families with children are only good for 12 months. Undoubtedly, a percentage of those folks will be able to maintain housing beyond that. But many will not.

I know. I am one who needs a Section 8 voucher, and I am fortunate to have received one just a couple weeks ago, three years after applying, doing the best I could to stay on top of it, then fighting with Vermont State Housing Authority for three months over normal government-agency bureaucracy and red tape.

* * *

The complexity of the issues involved here cannot be understated.

Each individual experiencing homelessness has come to this moment with their own story and has their own individual challenges as well as strengths. The only plan that will work is a plan that can be tailored to each person.

I don't expect the state and, subsequently, the taxpayers to continue spending money on hotel rooms. That is not a good long-term solution. In fact, I would argue that most of us here would agree this is not ideal and there is a need to get moving on the next solution as soon as possible.

However, if we do not sincerely develop a more comprehensive strategy to house Vermont's most vulnerable neighbors, this crisis is going to persist for another 20 to 30 years.

That is not an exaggerated time frame. We literally face generational poverty across Vermont. Right now is the best opportunity we have to end homelessness in Vermont for good.

But it takes a village, people! Everyone needs to show up and be a good neighbor. We all need to be the kind of neighbors we want from each other.

We need to swallow our pride, roll up our sleeves, and provide permanent supportive housing to everyone, including - and especially - those of us who are suffering from addiction. Without a better plan with comprehensive and permanent supports, we are not doing the best we can to care for ourselves and each other.

I will leave you with words from our lieutenant governor, Molly Gray, as they have touched my heart and speak to the points I've made.

“Today, we celebrate the work accomplished. Tomorrow, there is more work to be done to ensure that Vermont not only recovers from this pandemic, but recovers stronger,” she said.

Please notice she uses the word “recover” twice. Recovery is the touchstone of this moment because it means something important, yet different, for each and every one of us.

These words can be the common ground we stand on while we each find ways to live freely and with unity.

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