Lives will be saved this year. That cannot be understated.
When we announced that we would be staying on the State House steps on Oct. 14, the barrier for people without shelter to use the General Assistance Motel Program (GA Motels) was so high that many, even those who qualified, could not get in.
As a result, we set our bar high on demands and said from the start that we would not compromise on people's lives.
On Nov. 10 - exactly 28 days after we first announced that we would stay - we walked off the State House steps.
Early on, the administration did meet our demand to end its practice of asking Vermonters to trade their shelter for money. In addition, another nearly 600 Vermonters were prevented from being exited from the program in October.
And now we have succeeded in the big ask.
As of Nov. 22, any Vermonter experiencing houselessness or homelessness will have access to the GA Motel program and will be safer from freezing to death, Covid, and long-term health impacts.
We have shown that together Vermonters do have a voice. We can make the change we want to see. Thank you to all who provided support and voice in helping to make sure your community members and neighbors are safe this winter and hopefully beyond.
We are proud of the work that we accomplished so far with impacted voices and needs at the forefront. Together, we put a bright spotlight on this issue. The nearly daily press and consistent chronicling of our experience on the steps highlighted and humanized this issue in a way that rarely happens.
Watching so many Vermonters, so many of the governor's constituents, speak out was powerful. We are proud to have started a daily clinic to support folks in getting services and help them access legal services if their rights were being violated.
That clinic and this work will continue. Anyone with any need for support accessing services can call 802-490-4931 between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. daily. Through that clinic we helped several Vermonters access GA Motels and other services that they qualified for.
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We met with Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families and were invited to the General Assistance working group. We will participate in that group going forward, as well as continue to meet with the commissioner.
We met with the House speaker and Senate president pro tem, as well as the lieutenant governor, who all came out in support of the full expansion of the program following our meetings. We continue to be disappointed that the governor himself is not willing to meet with us and lived experience experts.
While not all of our demands have been addressed, pivotal change has been made.
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We remain concerned about several rules and areas of uncertainty. Our three top concerns:
1. People are cold today. The program should begin immediately and end with transitioning folks to long-term housing. It is not practical policy to end the program March 1 when the federal funds are there and the Legislature allocated significant funds to address the problem. Folks could easily stay until they transition into long term housing.
2. Several of the rules create harsh and unusually cruel punishments that could leave a person or family to freeze to death or be caused significant harm and destabilization. Rules in general should not be designed in a punitive manner; rather, they should be trauma informed and with an effort to generate the best outcomes for the individual. We believe such rules must be overhauled to meet these guidelines.
3. We have concerns about the income guidelines, as we have met several middle-income Vermonters now living in their cars but who can't afford to live in motels. We believe that being unhoused should be the bar for accessing emergency housing.
These two of our group's demands have not yet been met and we are actively working to address them:
1. We must eliminate the 84-day rule.
2. The administration must immediately give notice to the public and the impacted communities about their options and their rights as well as a clear guide to the rules that reads much like the landlord/tenant handbook. Impacted communities must also know where to go if their rights are being violated. The governor and Legislature must come up with a cohesive and coherent plan that will ensure folks are transitioned to long-term housing and not exited to the street.
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We will continue the work that we have begun on the steps of the State House by keeping our clinic and hotline open for folks. We also are beginning to travel around the state and assess needs. We have already set up meetings with legislative leaders in order to begin to work on a plan to end homelessness.
Our small advocacy group has been working on a plan to end homelessness all along and will present it to the public very soon, now that legislators, service providers and advocates have been afforded space from trying to just keep folks from dying - a position that none of us should have been in, since we had the resources to do better all along.
We will no longer be sleeping on the State House steps but we will not be leaving the State House completely. There is still a lot of work, many hard conversations, and much effort needed to help address Vermont's ongoing inhumane treatment of those experiencing homelessness along with the housing crisis overall. We have let this go unchecked for decades and now we are reaping what we sowed.
It is neither humane nor fiscally responsible to not solve this problem. We simply must.
We are prepared to keep speaking out alongside folks experiencing homelessness and houselessness and until we transition folks into long-term housing. We have no choice but to do just that.
If we end up again where folks are on the street, if these walls go back up, we will once again see you on the State House steps.