By Guy Page
Gov. Phil Scott and administration officials Friday outlined his plans to help transition the estimated 2,700 homeless Vermonters out of the 76 hotels and motels since the pandemic began.
Rather than extend the $145/night homeless hotel programs, the State will:
- Evaluate homeless hotel residents’ needs, and assist in providing services for mental health, health care, workforce training, substance abuse and housing.
- Increase homeless shelter capacity by converting temporary, seasonal shelters to fulltime.
- Work with communities to find solutions. “There won’t be a one-size fits all solution,” Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson said.
- Add substance use/mental housing beds.
- Re-establish the General Assistance housing program for needy families. This program has taken a back-burner to the homeless hotel program.
The homeless hotel program didn’t require recipients to seek help with the problems that contributed to their homelessness — including mental health, domestic abuse, substance abuse, and workforce training. That will change, Scott said.
“That’s been one of the challenges with the program,” Scott said. “There hasn’t been that accountability. Going back to the [general assistance] program we will have more accountability, more oversight. It will look like the general assistance program we had previous to this … finding them a job, finding them the substance abuse counseling they need.”
“We were actually just the credit card they used to get into the program,” Scott said. “There obviously wasn’t a lot of oversight there.”
“What will happen if people refuse to leave?” Ike Ben-David of WCAX asked. Scott didn’t answer specifically, saying the contract is between the residents and the hotel — the state has just been paying the bills.
To date, hotel/motel operators have called police to help evict tenants who are unwilling to leave.
Scott and all other administration officials said Vermont’s homelessness emergency didn’t occur in a vacuum, but is an outcome of an overall housing shortage that has been decades in the making. The State is working hard on rehabbing older homes and building new units, Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford said.
Housing advocate Brenda Siegel has warned that Vermonters without emergency housing soon will be sleeping on the couches of their drug dealers or returning to domestic abusers. People will die and that will be on the Scott administration’s head, she said earlier this month.
“We don’t think the hotel motel program we have right now is healthy,” Scott said. “A lot of what you’re hearing is actually happening in this program, because they’re isolated.”
“The hotel and motel program is not helping people thrive,” Samuelson added.
Vermont does have available capacity for domestic violence shelters, Winters said.
“Will they be isolated in tents,” a reporter asked. Winters admitted that “it will be really difficult” to address the real issues behind homelessness and keep people safe, all within budget constraints.
Will the State offer hotel/motel owners financial assistance to transition?
“I think they’ve received quite a bit of federal cash already,” Scott said. If they’ve budgeted properly, they should be able to transition. When the $145/night deal was made, the State of Vermont had little negotiating leverage, he said.
Some homeless hotels may convert to more permanent housing, offered the same units to the same clientele on a paying basis. About 14 already have done so, Hanford said.
Guy Page is publisher of the Vermont Daily Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.