Ranks of the unhoused keep growing in state

In report to Joint Fiscal Committee, commissioner of the DCF outlines increasing needs and the actions needed to meet them

BRATTLEBORO — The number of unsheltered people in Vermont is increasing, according to Chris Winters, commissioner of the Agency of Human Services' Department of Children and Families (AHS/DCF).

"We're seeing as many people coming into homelessness now as are exiting - even more," Winters reported at the Sept. 27 meeting of the Joint Fiscal Committee.

Statewide, as of Sept. 27, there are 874 households in what has been dubbed the "June 30 cohort" sheltering in motels through the state's Transitional Housing Program.

This number is down from 1,250 of the original cohort on June 30, when these households became eligible to extend their stay until April 1, 2024, through the enactment of Act 81.

However, Winters reported that while the number of households in the June 30 cohort is declining, the state's General Assistance (GA) Emergency Housing Program continues to take in new households under its "catastrophic" and "vulnerable populations" eligibility criteria that allow for either 28 or 84 motel nights (four or 12 weeks) in a 12-month period.

"While we are still exiting people from the cohort, there are close to the same numbers coming into the housing program," Winters said.

In Brattleboro, 124 households, including 28 children, have been sheltering in six area motels. Of the 96 households in the June 30 cohort, 77 are individuals.

Act 81 requires the June 30 cohort households to participate in coordinated entry and case management, a program administered by local partners - Coordinated Entry Lead Organizations - that maintain a master list of homeless households eligible for housing. Groundworks Collaborative, which runs the 30-bed overnight shelter on South Main Street, performs these duties in Brattleboro.

Under Act 81, households in the June 30 cohort must attempt to locate their own alternative housing and contribute 30% of their income toward their own housing. Households will no longer be eligible for this extended housing benefit if they fail to meet any of the engagement requirements outlined in the law, decline the offer of an appropriate housing placement, or are asked to leave a hotel or motel due to misconduct.

The state is currently paying an average of $133 a night for these motel stays, a rate that has been negotiated from $140 on June 30. Given the demand for motel rooms, the state doesn't have much leverage in these negotiations, noted Winters.

"We have to use as many of the hotel rooms as possible, and we don't have a lot of alternatives," he said. "But we hope to see that average nightly rate come down."

The hotel/motel program has received criticism for poor conditions in rooms, including accounts of bedbug infestations, raw sewage being discharged into rooms, and mold. Additionally, households have reported difficulty in recouping the $3,300 security deposits that were paid by the state on behalf of each client to motel owners.

Clients in the hotel/motel program are required to renew their eligibility each month with DCF's Economic Services Division (ESD) to remain in the program.

After clients reported long phone wait times - peaking at three hours in July - DCF outsourced this service to increase staff capacity. DCF now reports wait times of less than two minutes.

'It's got to take everybody's hands on deck'

DCF cites staffing challenges in the administration of the hotel/motel program. In 2019, 250 households participated in the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program. In the beginning of 2023, the program had 1,800 participating households and 15 limited-service positions at ESD while the program has increased in complexity.

"The [ESD] staffing was never intended to serve in this particular way," said Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Calendonia, chair of the Joint Fiscal Committee.

"They're not staffed for the case management role. In many ways, our focus has been on economic services because they process the benefit. But so much of what is happening with these households actually requires our collective resources," she said. "It's got to take everybody's hands on deck."

With the potential for hundreds of households being evicted from the hotel/motel program in April, the state is under the gun to find alternate housing solutions.

Commissioner Winters reported that the state is attempting to shift from using motels as temporary shelter by planning for the development of both congregate shelters, with shared sleeping and living spaces, and non-congregate shelters, "where each individual or household has living space that offers some level of privacy, such as hotels [or] motels," according to one federal definition.

"Congregate shelters are not preferred," Winters said, "but we have to consider all options at this point, especially if we have a large number of people coming out of the hotel/motel program at the same time. It's one of many approaches to providing safe shelter for people."

The state is funding the creation and repair of manufactured homes (mobile homes) as one strategy to provide homes for households exiting the hotel/motel program.

Act 81 directs $10 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board's (VHCB) Manufactured Home and Replacement and Infill Program.

Grants and 0%-interest, deferred loans will be made available to manufactured-home park owners to fill vacant and underutilized lots in parks to house Vermonters exiting homelessness.

VHCB Executive Director Gus Seelig reported to the JFC that the Manufactured Home Replacement and Infill Program is accepting applications on a rolling basis and is reviewing an initial application from The Housing Foundation Inc., the largest owner of manufactured home communities in Vermont.

Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT), which owns three mobile home parks in this area, reports three vacancies in its Putney park, several miles off Route 5. But WWHT will not pursue this funding opportunity.

"We don't feel that it is appropriate to have somebody exiting a motel and going straight into a home that's down a dirt road away from the bus line," said WWHT Executive Director Elizabeth Bridgewater. "It's unfortunately not the best location."

Act 81 also directs $5 million to the Vermont Housing Improvement Program (VHIP). Administered by the Department of Housing and Community Development, VHIP offers grants up to $50,000 per unit for repairs to bring vacant rental units up to Vermont Rental Housing Health Code guidelines, add new units to an existing building, or create an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on an owner-occupied property.

Property owners who are rehabilitating existing units or creating a new unit that is not an ADU must work with Coordinated Entry Lead Organizations to identify suitable tenants exiting homelessness.

VHIP is designed to address two critical issues in the state: the declining quality of rental units and the homeless assistance programs that often struggle to find suitable housing for their clients.

According to Alex Farrell, deputy commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, between January 2022 and September 2023, 216 VHIP housing units have either been completed, approved or are in progress statewide.

Of that number, 41 units are ADUs that don't have the requirement to house somebody exiting homelessness.

"But we know that the vast majority of our VHIP units are going to the homeless population," Farrell reported.

"These units are coming online in a matter of months rather than a matter of years," he said. "So this is a really efficient way to get units online."

WWHT administers the VHIP program locally. In Windham County, there is one completed VHIP project and three in progress. Bridgewater attributes the low numbers for Windham County to the program being new.

"We were in a holding pattern for a long time while the state finalized the program guidelines," she said. "But we're up and running now and have a lot going on."

'We need different strategies to address homelessness'

Winters outlined several strategies to address homelessness in the state.

DCF reports that the number one barrier to housing individuals in the motel program is the lack of affordable, available units.

"Although we've had unprecedented investment in affordable housing construction, the pace and volume we're producing is not going to meet the needs for a very long time," Winters said.

Winters said that even clients who are most prepared to transition to more permanent housing - those with support services and housing vouchers in hand - are still unable to find the units they need.

"Without a change in availability of this type of housing, the pressure on the hotel/motel program will continue," he said. "We need to modernize our regulatory system to allow for the housing our residents need. That's building affordable housing, that's siting shelters."

Providing support services to clients is another strategy to address homelessness.

"We need to use a more community-based, client-centered approach to addressing homelessness," Winters said. "We have people who are stuck in the GA Housing Program unable to move forward. They don't get the services they need. We need to invest in multiple levels of intervention and prevention to have fewer people entering into homelessness in the first place."

For the past year, AHS has employed Care Coordination Housing Resource Teams to provide employment, health, and housing services to individuals and families housed through the GA Emergency Housing Program.

These interdisciplinary teams have helped clients identify barriers to transitioning to permanent housing: lack of sufficient income, poor credit history, bad or no landlord references, and need for additional mental health support.

These barriers, in addition to the lack of available, affordable units, have made it "incredibly challenging to help participants transition out of shelter to more permanent solutions," according to DCF's "General Assistance Emergency Housing Program Report" submitted to the Legislature on Sept. 1.

According to the report, Care Coordination Housing Resource Teams were "a critical first step in acknowledging that this motel shelter benefit was being accessed more as housing, and less as temporary emergency shelter - with households remaining in the program for years, instead of days."

Without additional funding and staffing, these support services will end in April 2024.

Summing up, Winters said that "we need to change what we're doing because doing the same thing the way that we've always done it is not going to match the need. We have to change the paradigm, and we're prepared to come forward very soon with a different menu of options, a different approach."

This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.

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