Michelle Bos-Lun, in her second term as state representative, is one of 17 Progressive members who did not vote with their Democrat leadership to approve the budget. For them, the budget must fund “a responsible, compassionate transition out of hotel housing,” she says.
Jeff Potter/Commons file photo
Michelle Bos-Lun, in her second term as state representative, is one of 17 Progressive members who did not vote with their Democrat leadership to approve the budget. For them, the budget must fund “a responsible, compassionate transition out of hotel housing,” she says.

End of motel program will remove shelter and stability

With housing unavailable and the end of the emergency pandemic measure, advocates warn of looming crisis of homelessness in Brattleboro and all through Vermont

BRATTLEBORO — On June 1, the state's motel voucher program will end.

The Legislative session has adjourned without funding the pandemic emergency program, which sheltered homeless people throughout the state as a public health measure, a public policy decision that housing advocates predict will have devastating ramifications across the state.

Seven hotels in Brattleboro participate in the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program - the formal name for the voucher program. These hotels -Black Mountain Inn, Colonial Motel, Covered Bridge Inn, EconoLodge, Latchis Hotel, Quality Inn, and Travelodge - are sheltering approximately 220 households, according to Department of Children and Families' Economic Benefits Director Nicole Tousignant.

DCF's Economic Service Division anticipates that 65 households will no longer be eligible on June 1, with the end of the adverse weather conditions policy. Others will be forced out of their lodgings at the beginning of July.

At stake is the question of how many will have shelter after that date.

Even with the voucher program, Brattleboro has been struggling with homelessness. Prior to the pandemic, during the warmer weather, tent cities have emerged by the Connecticut River. Sometimes people sleep in the parks.

With affordable housing - really, any housing - increasingly scarce at any price, it is impossible to universally categorize people who are facing this future.

Some voucher recipients are working people who simply can't find housing in Brattleboro's tight and expensive rental market. Some are families. The school bus stops at some of these motels.

“I certainly wouldn't necessarily equate people who are leaving the motel program with panhandling,” said Brattleboro Town Manager John Potter.

“A lot of folks may have other options that they're able to take advantage of,” he said. “Many of them, I understand, have jobs but have not had a roof over their head. We're just starting to understand what could be the best solution for, obviously, a very difficult problem. And we don't have the answers yet.”

The exact number of people being evicted fluctuates.

“The data is changing daily about how many people are exiting motels with the ending of each phase of the program's unwind,” said Libby Bennett of Groundworks Collaborative, the town's lead homelessness organization.

As of May 10, 218 adults in 179 households were living in state-funded motel rooms in Brattleboro. Bennett said the program will end in two phases: May 31 and June 30.

“On June 1, 67 households [with] 114 adults - all of whom are in the motels under the policy for adverse weather conditions - a relaxation of, or augmentation to, categorical eligibility that was extended from this past winter - will exit Brattleboro motels,” Bennett said. “On July 1, another group of people will be exiting the motels - potentially everyone remaining in the program - including 52 children.”

How we got here

During the pandemic, when federal money created the voucher program to get people off the streets, motels seemed like the best answer to the problem. The program, which housed approximately 3,000 people statewide, is credited with keeping infections low. As the pandemic diminished, so did the federal funding, so the state picked up the bill for the rooms.

By many measures, the voucher program is coming to a natural end as the national state of emergency expired on May 11.

Some motels have decided to end participation in the program and return to engaging in the tourist trade. Others are having trouble finding staff. Others face complaints from those they are paid to house.

“[T]enants routinely complain that basic services traditionally offered at hotels, like clean sheets and toilet paper, are often withheld, while even more serious complaints abound, including severe plumbing problems, mold, chronic bed bug infestations, and doors that won't lock,” VTDigger reported on March 13.

This year, Gov. Phil Scott's administration said the state could not afford to fund the program any further.

Obviously, the motel vouchers were never meant to be the long-term solution to homelessness in Vermont. For one thing, the cost is prohibitive. According to the DFC, “The average cost of a hotel room through the GA Emergency Housing program is $148 per night.”

Do the math: $148 for one room, times 30 days in a month, comes out to $4,440. To put that in perspective, an apartment at the recently restored Brooks House on Main Street, one of the most desirable addresses in Brattleboro, is significantly less.

The cost to the state of this program has been estimated at over $50 million a year. VTDigger has estimated the cost at $7 million to $8 million per month, based on its own analysis of the state funding data.

A humanitarian crisis

The current situation is being called a humanitarian crisis by a number of important players. On May 10, a group of legislators, including Reps. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Rockingham, and Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, sent out a press release that began:

“The mass eviction of 1,800 households, more than 2,500 people, is a humanitarian crisis. A crisis caused not by natural disaster, but by the willful indifference of a handful of leaders across state government making decisions that will unquestionably harm people. We know that the money is available to appropriate.

“This is a moral and political problem, not a money problem. We know that there is a better way forward. The Legislature has an opportunity to create a humane transition plan for Vermonters facing an immediate loss of shelter as the Covid-era rules for the General Assistance Emergency Housing program come to an end.”

The voucher situation - with massive uncertainty about its future - has been steadily building for years.

“Unfortunately, the end to this program has apparently been promised several times, and it looks like now it is actually real,” Potter said.

Federal funding for the program was set to expire at the end of 2020, with the pandemic still roaring at full bore. Hundreds were forced from the program in mid-2021 as the Scott administration attempted to shut it down.

But the program stayed intact as Covid resurged, and later that year, anti-poverty advocate Brenda Siegel staged a protest on the steps of the Statehouse over 27 days and nights to pressure the Scott administration into extending the program to all homeless Vermonters.

“We are trying to understand the magnitude of the issue,” said Bos-Lun. “We're understanding that maybe about 80 people or so will no longer be in protected categories at the end of May. And understand that the Agency for Human Services and a number of partners are working hard to help these folks that will no longer be eligible and come up with a plan for what happens on June 1.”

Last week, the town and local officials from the Vermont Agency of Human Services convened a Community Homelessness Strategy Team to look at the community impact of the motel exodus.

Groundworks, which ordinarily would take point on the issue, suffered a severe loss in April when a client brutally killed one of its staff. The traumatic incident shut down the nonprofit for a period of grieving and regrouping.

“We continue to reopen Groundworks programming with a phased approach after the three-week pause in frontline operations, during which scores of community partners kept services in place for the people we serve - allowing staff to grieve the tragic loss of our coworker, Leah Rosin-Pritchard,” Bennett said.

The end of the voucher program couldn't have come at a worse time for Groundworks. Still, it is rallying.

“We recognize that Groundworks' services are a key component of our overall community response to this crisis and we are pleased to be collaborating with the state, town, and our community partners on solutions,” Bennett said.

“The group will continue to meet every week to address this crisis through an emergency management model,” she said. “The faith community will be organizing a tent drive for usable tents and camping supplies.”

Lawmakers oppose funding

With the governor backing out, the Legislature could have stepped up to put funding for the program in its budget - it has the ability, should it choose, to override gubernatorial vetoes this year. It chose not to.

“Continuing the hotel-motel program, even for any additional short period of time, really robs us of the resources that we need in order to move forward into something that is going to be more sustainable for us and to invest in more permanent changes,” Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, told VTDigger.

Furious, Progressive Party legislators mounted a campaign to change legislators' minds.

“We want to make it clear to you that we cannot support a budget that will cause a humanitarian crisis in our state,” six Chittenden County legislators wrote to their colleagues in a letter shared as a press release on May 5. “The Administration has shown us time and time again that they do not and will not support Vermont's most vulnerable residents[...]. We are at a crossroads.”

The Progressives asked for, among other things, $76 million to fully fund the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program “and establish a humane-based policy in statute to support Vermonters until we develop long-term, supportive housing options.”

Many of Windham County's Democratic legislators felt the same way.

“Many of us within our delegation have been working to head off this humanitarian disaster,” said Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro. “In my case, it began in January when I realized we were poised to begin the un-housing in April for about one-third of the current participants. I proposed an additional $7 million to extend the Covid eligibility rules for all until the end of the fiscal year. My assumption was that it would give us time to craft a long-term solution.

“The Senate then cut back the last month of eligibility for the so-called 'non-prioritized population,' which is those who are under 60, single, or are not on SSDI [Social Security Disability Insurance]. This woke me up to the political dynamic we are in, where the governor and key leaders in the Legislature are aligned around ending the program without a comprehensive plan.”

Toleno said that “it is not an exaggeration to say that I have tried to use every tool I have learned in my 11 years here to persuade us to shift course. At this point, I think we will not have a comprehensive package.”

He said he is “crushed.”

“I know that if this is true, we have failed our most vulnerable,” Toleno continued. “As a member of House Appropriations, I know that the long-term costs of our failure will be more expensive than an extension of the emergency program.”

In the end, before the Legislature adjourned on May 12, House and Senate budget negotiators put an extra $12.5 million in the budget for local service providers.

“Today, the House has taken a significant step in addressing Vermont's housing crisis,” stated Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski in her closing remarks. “The budget is the culmination of months of work that reflects the commitment and dedication of the legislature toward building a resilient, more inclusive Vermont.“

Calling the $8.4 billion budget “a reflection of our values,” Krowinski said it “addresses critical areas such as housing assistance, health care, education, workforce development, and the infrastructure vital in improving all Vermonters' lives.”

Despite Krowinski's upbeat tone, 17 legislators, including Bos-Lun, voted against the budget because of the abrupt ending of the voucher system.

“A lot of important policy is reflected in this budget which can benefit Vermont and Vermonters, but it is missing one critical allocation: funding a responsible, compassionate transition out of hotel housing,” said Bos-Lun. “I do believe the program needs to be phased out, but in a careful way that supports both the needs of individuals and our communities.”

Bos-Lun, who has worked as a case manager with homeless youth, said that at the beginning of the pandemic, she worked with some individuals who were sheltered in hotels.

“I cannot support a bill that evicts every individual currently housed in hotels without time to make supportive plans,” she said. “A director of a Vermont emergency housing program told me he was trying to get sleeping bags and tents to send current hotel residents out with some form of shelter.”

She called that measure “inadequate and inhumane.”

“With a bit more time and coordination, better options could be secured to make a smoother transition for all,” Bos-Lun continued. “I cannot support a budget that sends Vermonters out of temporary housing onto the streets, into the woods, or to living in their cars. This was the hardest vote I ever cast, but I had to vote no.”

The budget was still passed, and the voucher program remained unfunded.

“This is a crisis for our community and communities throughout the state,” Bennett said. “Any solution that is not permanent housing transfers this crisis to persist in a new form.”

How and why?

If it looks like homelessness is increasing, that's because it is.

The number of persons in the state who experience homelessness - measured on Jan. 26, 2022 in Vermont's annual Point in Time Count - was 2,112, according to Martin Hahn, the executive director of the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness. In 2023, that number was 2,537, an increase of 20%.

“Motels are not a long-term solution but better than nothing,” said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Dummerston. “That's why the big-picture plan is to continue efforts to build more housing for all segments of the population. We need workforce housing, housing for the homeless, and [housing] for those a paycheck away from being without a home. We need all of these pieces of the puzzle, since all the housing we build takes pressure off the system.”

The housing crisis goes back a long way. Some blame the rising cost of construction. Some blame Act 250, the state's land-use and development law. Some blame the fact that a builder can earn more for building a million-dollar mansion than for putting up affordable housing.

But in fact, according to Elizabeth Bridgewater, the executive director of the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust, you can date the problem to 1987, to the creation of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Vermont housing and Conservation Trust Fund, subsidized by a portion of the property transfer tax.

“In the statute, 50% of the property transfer tax was awarded to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board,” Bridgewater said. “The rest was intended to support affordable housing.”

However, Bridgewater said, “there is a provision called 'Not withstanding past statute.' It enables future legislators to respond to current needs, regardless of the commitments that they made in the past.”

This creates a loophole that has allowed the Legislature to underfund housing for decades.

“When you talk to folks who have been following the implications of this during this time period, they estimate that over 1,000 housing units could have been built during that time had had it been funded at full statutory levels,” Bridgewater said.

What's next?

Groundworks is planning to phase in additional overnight beds in its South Main Street Drop-In shelter over the coming weeks, subject to its ability to adequately staff the program, Bennett said.

Similarly, the nonprofit's day shelter will ramp up morning, afternoon, and evening hours. Daytime services will continue to be closed from noon to 2 p.m. daily for cleaning and staff training.

Morningside House, where the slaying took place, is closed indefinitely “while we figure out next steps,” Bennett said.

Some of the disenfranchised will move to the couches and spare rooms of friends or families. Some will sleep in their cars. Some will sleep in tents because the weather is becoming warmer and more welcoming. Some will continue to sleep on the benches in Pliny Park.

But come what may, the first part of the motel voucher program ends in two weeks. And by the end of June, an extra 179 households will be homeless in Brattleboro.

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