Photoillustration based on image by Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

I could not vote to send thousands back to the streets

With a budget of $8.5 billion to support a myriad of important issues, how could we not include adequate funding to secure a gradual, compassionate transition out of the hotel pandemic housing program?

WESTMINSTER — On May 12, I cast my final vote of the 2023 legislative session.

I did so in the Vermont State House, in what is often called “the People's House.” It felt to this legislator like those who work in the “People's House” had not done enough to ensure that vulnerable people would have a house.

The vote was for the state budget, which passed 90 yes to 53 no, sealing the fate of 1,800 households whose members will be forced to leave their current housing on either May 31 or July 1. The huge majority do not know where their new homes will be.

By the time the governor gave his final remarks in the State House on May 12, the clock was approaching midnight. That made me think about how time would be running out for individuals currently sheltered in hotels around Vermont, including 500 to 600 children.

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I have been a member of the Democratic party for over 25 years. I am the chair of the Westminster Democratic Town Committee. I have always thought Democrats looked out for the poor and the marginalized.

But despite an overwhelming majority of us in the State House, the Democrats are not collectively prioritizing the fate of the disadvantaged who lack permanent housing in the budget that was just passed.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been waking in the middle of the night with my heart pounding. I didn't want to vote against months of work from all committees designating funding for so many important programs. Yet, if I were to vote yes, it would mean approving a plan that sacrifices those living in hotels.

A yes vote would send a message that I was OK with this omission.

I wasn't.

I made the almost-unthinkable decision to vote no.

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I was told as a new legislator that, when deciding a vote, we should consider conscience first, constituents second, and party third.

On this issue, my conscience compelled me to vote as I did. As a former case manager working with homeless youth in Brattleboro, I could not vote to end a program that would send thousands back to the streets.

With a budget of $8.5 billion to support a myriad of important issues, how could we not include adequate funding to secure a gradual, compassionate transition out of the hotel pandemic housing program?

I could not support a budget destined to cause imminent human suffering for individuals leaving the hotels: to move into the woods, into their cars (if they have a car), or onto the streets.

I could not vote yes for a budget that would exit 700 households by May 31, including 78 from Brattleboro, a budget that would require the exit of an additional 1,000-plus households by July 1 (more than 110 of them from Brattleboro).

The second exit group includes people living with disabilities and at least 500 children statewide.

Where will these people go?

No one seems to know.

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I have talked to and met with directors of emergency housing programs in both Brattleboro and Montpelier, received over a hundred emails from individuals living in the hotels, spoken with advocates and front-line workers. They know the dates the programs are ending. They don't know where people will go.

They all agree that ending the housing program with evictions on June 1 and July 1 will have devastating impacts on the impacted individuals and also for the communities and emergency services that would be affected by a mass exodus without adequate transition plans. There is not time to prepare individuals or communities by July 1, let alone May 31.

How will a town like Brattleboro be impacted by close to 200 individuals losing housing? What will downtown, parks, libraries, and other public spaces be like after these dates?

It will be devastating for the individuals moved to the streets and devastating for the social service providers. It will be devastating for emergency response teams and devastating for hospitals that will be struggling to address the needs of so many people.

Josh Davis, executive director of Groundworks Collaborative, has advocated to slow the transition as much as possible.

“The harm will not only be experienced by the people being pushed out of the motel program but also by communities at large throughout the state,” he says. “For everyone's sake, we strongly urge that the program be wound down more gradually, reducing the number of people coming out of the program at any given time.”

The Agency of Human Services has been sending staff weekly to help with case management needs at some sites. Unfortunately, there is not enough time (and there are not enough case managers) to match residents with limited available placements before the exit dates.

Davis said that having case managers come in three to four times a week to help with assessment and planning would be ideal, but that has not been possible. Flexible funding that has been added to the budget to support transition needs will help, but not in time for the announced exit dates.

Some of the additional funding will be partly used to set up mass shelters (big rooms with cots, as we do in bad weather) in four to seven locations around the state. Only some individuals will qualify for these new shelters. An enormous amount of staff time and funds will be questionably redirected into creating an inadequate alternative shelter model instead of focusing on finding stable placements for individuals as they become available.

Rick Deangelis, director of the Good Samaritan housing program in Barre, said on a visit with the Progressive caucus recently that very little transition planning has happened. People have no idea where they will go. He said it is looking like what he can do to support people will be to “help people get tents and sleeping bags before they go.”

But where will they go?

Deangelis was glad to see some transition funding added back into the budget to provide for some additional options. It's not enough.

* * *

I did not run for office to see state government turn its back on some of our most vulnerable residents.

I voted no on the state budget because I could not support a plan that will cause two waves of a profound humanitarian crisis, beginning in two weeks, at the end of May.

I voted no on the state budget because it did not support appropriate transition plans that would prevent crises both for individuals and our communities.

Please consider calling Gov. Scott at 802-828-2228 and let him know that rapid unhousing of people without transition plans is not what we want for Vermonters.

I will keep working on this. We must do better.

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