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As federal housing assistance winds down — and needs ramp up — lawmakers ask about ‘splitting the baby’


Motel facade
The Travel Inn in Rutland is one of the motels around Vermont where state agencies are housing people who would otherwise be homeless. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Service providers helping to keep Vermonters sheltered came before lawmakers Friday to paint a bleak picture of conditions on the ground as the state confronts dwindling federal assistance amid a historic housing crisis.

Sue Minter, the executive director of Capstone Community Action, an anti-poverty nonprofit in central Vermont, offered what she called “staggering” figures. In Washington County alone, Minter said, the nonprofit believes 487 people — including 45 households with children — are experiencing homelessness or are on the brink, in addition to about 80 people living outside with no shelter at all. 

“We just applied for a grant for survival gear,” Paul Dragon, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, told lawmakers. “I would have never thought in this day and age that we would be applying for survival gear just to keep people alive outside.”

While motels, which are still home to over 2,000 Vermonters, are sheltering people from the elements, they are ill-equipped to deal with the needs of elderly and disabled people who often reside there, providers said. Sherry Marcelino, the community support manager of Lamoille County Mental Health Services, told lawmakers that hospitals often discharge patients straight into emergency housing in motels. 

One man, she said, died in his hotel room following complications from his hospitalization. He was later discovered by the mental health nonprofit’s staff.

“That’s not a day that they’re ever going to forget,” Marcelino said. 

In late August, Gov. Phil Scott’s administration announced that several massive housing assistance programs would abruptly ramp down as pandemic-era federal funding dried up more quickly than initially projected. The following month, state officials estimated they would have an extra $20 million in extra federal funding to keep some reduced benefits going longer. They’ve since increased their estimates to $30 to $37 million.

The Legislature is not currently in session, so lawmakers are limited in their ability to intervene until they reconvene in January. But the administration is seeking permission from the Joint Fiscal Committee — a special legislative panel with the power to greenlight some spending in the off-session — to OK their plans for the extra money. 

Senate and House lawmakers from the General Assembly’s human services committees assembled in a special hearing Friday to hear the administration’s ideas and forward their feedback to the joint fiscal panel.

Still, despite the extra cash — and an acute housing crisis — state officials and many lawmakers have bluntly said that benefits cannot continue as is. The task at hand, they say, is an exercise in triage. 

The state’s transitional housing program, which is paying to house about 1,500 households in hotels and motels across the state, stopped taking new applications on Oct. 1, although people experiencing homelessness can still access motel vouchers this winter through the state’s cold-weather policy. The Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program also stopped taking new applications Oct. 1 and has already started to reduce benefits.

As Rick DeAngelis, the co-executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven shelter in Barre, pleaded with lawmakers to consider extending the state’s transitional housing program past March, Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, the outgoing chair of the House Committee on Human Services, interrupted him.

“We can’t keep doing things the way we have,” Pugh said. “So if we’re going to continue the program what — I’m looking for your recommendations as to splitting the baby. What are our priorities?” 

Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action, an anti-poverty nonprofit in central Vermont, offered what she called “staggering” figures before lawmakers on Friday. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

At least in the short term, Minter told lawmakers to focus on people with health conditions, fixed incomes and children. She and several of her colleagues also plugged the need for continued rental assistance to help keep those in housing from falling into homelessness. Marcellino pitched a rental risk pool to coax more landlords to rent to people with spotty housing records. And Dragon said lawmakers needed to consider a just cause eviction standard to keep landlords from kicking tenants out in retaliation.

Administration officials are set to come before the Joint Fiscal Committee on Dec. 14. In an interview after Friday’s hearing, House Appropriations chair Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, who sits on the joint fiscal panel, expressed frustration that Scott’s administration had thus far offered few details about their own ideas.

“We have known since August that this isn’t going to work and the administration still can’t tell us what the total plan is,” Hooper said. “I’m standing outside and it’s cold. And people are suffering. And we can do better than this.”

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