Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mike Smith, Vermont’s secretary of the Agency of Human Services.
Vermont’s response to serving the homeless during the pandemic has been recognized as a national model. The Agency of Human Services (AHS) is now working hard to ensure the needs of Vermont’s homeless households continue to be met as we emerge from the pandemic. Unfortunately, recent reporting regarding changes to the state’s emergency housing program did not fully capture this work and barely touched on the historic investments to support the homeless as we move into the recovery phase from the public health emergency caused by COVID-19.
As the pandemic began to spread into Vermont, AHS quickly moved to protect homeless Vermonters by waiving the eligibility rules for the emergency housing program to ensure all Vermonters had a place to isolate from the virus. For the past 15 months we have provided motel rooms to the homeless, some nights approaching 2,000 households at its peak. This was possible because the public health and travel restrictions essentially closed Vermont to tourism and motels stepped up to serve people experiencing housing crises instead of travelers. Currently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reimbursing the state for most of the $79,000,000 cost to provide this program for the current state fiscal year. Projections for state fiscal year 2022 pegged the cost rising to $108 million if the program did not undergo changes. In addition, continued federal reimbursement is uncertain.
Hotels and motels have been a valuable resource for Vermonters experiencing homelessness, but they were never intended to be a permanent solution. Those living in hotels for extended periods of time experience isolation and difficulty accessing services such as meals and mental health or substance use treatment. In fact, local emergency services have been strained responding to the needs of a greatly expanded hotel/motel program.
Providing supports and services to households needing emergency housing is a critical component of ensuring that assistance is more than a roof over someone’s head. During the pandemic there were efforts to dramatically increase the number of services available in motels through an influx of resources and the extraordinary efforts of many of our community partners. Transitioning to a more sustainable scale and model of emergency housing allows for the opportunity to continue working to make sure Vermonters experiencing housing crises are connected to necessary and critical supports.
Additionally, recognizing Vermont will not have motel capacity or the financial resources to sustain this effort at the end of the public health emergency, the Vermont Legislature asked AHS to convene a workgroup to develop a plan to transition the program. The workgroup was tasked with “reaching agreement on a plan to transition from expanded emergency housing to a sustainable emergency housing program by the end of fiscal year 2022. In developing this plan, the working group shall consider the prioritization of vulnerable populations…” The workgroup included staff from AHS, homeless service providers from across the state, community action agencies, a domestic and sexual violence prevention organization, and Vermont Legal Aid.
The workgroup met for many hours over several weeks and reached agreement on a plan, which was accepted without change by the Vermont Legislature and incorporated into the budget that will take effect this coming July 1st. The plan will provide a program that is much more expansive than existed prior to the pandemic, with an estimated cost of $41,000,000. For reference, prior to the pandemic the program cost approximately $6,000,000 a year. The plan focuses on vulnerable, homeless households with new eligibility criteria that provides up to 84 days of emergency housing to families with minor children of any age, households with an individual that is disabled or over age 60, women in any trimester of pregnancy, and households fleeing domestic or sexual violence. Families with children and some disabled households will be eligible for housing beyond 84 days. The new eligibility rules went into effect for new applicants on June 1st. The households participating in the program prior to that date are subject to the new rules beginning July 1st.
Homeless service providers across the state are working with households that will not be eligible for continued housing beyond July 1st to develop transition plans. To support these plans, an essential payment of $2,500 will be provided to each of the households and service providers also have access to rapid resolution funds of up to $8,000 per household to help meet their needs. AHS is funding ongoing case management services for these households that will be available and ongoing beyond July 1st. The goal is to transition households to other housing arrangements, whether to permanent housing or shared living arrangements. In addition, these households will have access to the wide array of other benefits provided by AHS, other areas of state government and our community service providers, including 3SquaresVT emergency full allotment benefits and emergency rental assistance funding. These households are not just being “kicked to the curb” without supports or services.
The plan was developed with the recognition that the pandemic motel capacity would shrink considerably with the end of the public health emergency. As projected, we have lost several hundred motel rooms across the state as the economy reopens, and tourism is coming back stronger than we anticipated. We anticipate losing considerably more motel rooms on July 1st as several motels have indicated they are now turning away travelers and tourists and will transition to serve that population after that date. To ensure the needs of the most vulnerable homeless are met by the program, which is a priority for Governor Scott and the Vermont Legislature, it is necessary for the new program rules to be implemented for the existing households participating in the program on July 1st.
The emergency housing program has never been, and will never be, the solution to solving homelessness. The solution is the creation of affordable, permanent housing for the homeless along with supporting services. Under the leadership of Governor Scott, and with the support of the Vermont Legislature, our state is now investing over $120,000,000 to build this housing. While these new units are being built, AHS will continue to meet the needs of Vermont’s most vulnerable homeless households by operating an expanded hotel/motel program in fiscal year 2022, bringing on new permanent housing opportunities, encouraging the reopening and expansion of shelter capacity, and offering assistance to access the multi-million dollars in housing subsidies to find housing for those that may be experiencing homelessness. And post-pandemic, even with these changes, Vermont will still be a leader in caring for the homeless.