State moves hotel housing program to longer-term, more stable transitional housing

Front of the motel
Rutland’s Travel Inn was one of at least 75 motels in Vermont where state agencies housed people who would otherwise be homeless. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont’s General Assistance Housing Program, which has housed thousands of Vermonters in hotels and motels throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, reverted to pre-pandemic eligibility criteria on Friday. People currently using the scheme will remain eligible for hotel accommodation through a new scheme, which aims to provide greater stability.

As of July 1, the Department of Children and Families is transferring most hotel residents to the Transitional Housing Program, which will provide homeless Vermonters with a hotel room for up to 18 months, and is funded by various federal dollars.

Under the General Assistance Program, participants should request regular extensions from DCF, typically every 30 days. Many people who used the program found the renewal process arduous, as it could require them to wait for hours in a phone queue until a DCF worker was available. The process was particularly difficult for people with limited phone or internet access, or who had to work during office hours.

In the new program, participants will sign agreements with the hotel for three months at a time and can stay in the program for up to 18 months. The program aims to provide greater stability while maximizing federal funding, said Katarina Lisaius, senior adviser to the DCF commissioner.

“For people who it’s going to work for, it’s great,” said Brenda Siegel, who last fall slept on the steps of the Statehouse for 27 nights to lobby lawmakers to extend the program. general support housing. (That campaign by Siegel and other activists succeeded, and Siegel is now the only Democratic candidate in this year’s gubernatorial race.)

About 1,600 households are using the hotel housing program, according to Lisaius, and as of midday Friday, 1,350 households had moved to the longer-term transitional housing program.

DCF will pay hotels with money from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program. Vermont received “more than $350 million” from the US Treasury for rent assistance, Lisaius said. The hotel program had been funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency throughout the pandemic. Under the new program, the cost per room is higher at some hotels because federal guidelines prohibit the state from negotiating a lower rate with hotels, according to Lisaius.

The general assistance program costs about $110 per room per night, she said.

All Vermonters currently in the hotel program remain eligible for the new program, Lisaius said, because the new program has less restrictive eligibility requirements. The household income threshold to participate is now 80% of the area’s median income — in Chittenden County, which was $55,918 in 2019, according to the most recent data from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

The threshold for general assistance housing was 185% of the federal poverty level, or about $25,000 per year for an individual, according to Vermont Legal Aid.

The general assistance program will not disappear with the deployment of transitional housing, but its scope will be more limited.

“The GA program is a crisis program,” Lisaius said. “So if someone is homeless and meets the eligibility criteria, the GA program exists and will always exist.”

Although these longer-term occupancy agreements between hotels and program participants work much like leases, people participating in the transitional housing program are not legally considered tenants. This was explicitly written in this year’s budget adjustment law. However, occupancy agreements set out specific rules for how a hotel can force people out, Lisaius said, which should provide protections similar to those the law provides for tenants.

The roughly 250 households that did not enroll in the new program were people who had not “engaged with the department,” according to Lisaius.

“We’re working on minute-by-minute deals, so we expect that number to go down,” Lisaius said Friday afternoon.

DCF employees, along with nonprofit partners, have been working to enroll people in the program since April 1, both by phone and onsite at hotels.

About 70 hotels across the state have participated in the assistance program, Lisaius said, and all but four have agreed to stay in the transitional housing program. (Two of those hotels are now converted to permanent accommodation, she said.)

For Siegel, those 250 households are proof that some Vermonters continue to fall through the cracks of state support.

“If these programs are designed in such a way that we don’t have a net for people they don’t fit, then we haven’t really solved the problem,” Siegel said in an interview Friday. “It’s a very good thing for the people who it’s good for, but those who are left behind, it’s not their fault that they are left behind.”

While Siegel praised the work of DCF workers to keep people housed, she said the state could do better to support single parents and those with serious mental illness or substance use disorders. . Siegel, who is a member of the Vermont AG’s emergency housing task force, said she’s also worried about what will happen when winter returns. For her, any claim that there will be enough permanent housing built by then does not pass “the franchise test”.

“We asked for creativity, that we start working now on what’s going to happen in October when people are at risk of freezing to death again,” Siegel said. “We need to move beyond this moment and we need to have real vision moving forward.”

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