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Housing Emergency is Beyond a Crisis Point

By Beth Ann Maier

Vermonters, we have a housing emergency and it will reach crisis proportions this summer! If that sounds alarmist, it only hints at how alarming it will be for Vermonters experiencing homelessness and the cities, towns, and villages of Vermont that will need to respond to people without shelter in their communities. 

Despite all the talk about housing being everyone’s number one priority, the only plan offered for the coming year is a massive UNHOUSING of those currently in hotel-based shelter. This program has been funded with federal COVID-emergency dollars, which are due to run out this month. The Budget Adjustment Act is set to extend the funding through May with surplus state funding, but come July, funds to shelter those without housing will need to come from the Fiscal Year 2024 budget. The state of Vermont has been spending $6 to $7 million a month to provide hotel housing for 1,800 households (2,800 individuals) as of January 2023. Among them are 600 children! The Vermont Legislature and the Scott administration are on track to allocate less than half that amount in their current budget plans for July 2023 through July 2024. 

For three years, we have paid hotel owners tourist room rates, and the owners have not been held accountable for even a minimum of health, safety, security, and facility maintenance. We have had three years to form a plan that is smarter, that allows people to move forward, a plan that doesn’t continue to throw good money after bad. It is an outrage that after three years, our only plan is to turn people out on the street. We know what that looks like. 

At my church in Montpelier, there are 10 to 12 people sleeping on cots, crammed into our 30- by 40-foot parish hall because there is no other shelter space available. They leave in the morning with an agenda that includes finding bathrooms, finding food, finding warmth, and then maybe a search for housing and a job if they have any time and energy left. Come April 15, they will be in tents in the woods. With the proposed FY24 Vermont budget, it will look like this in every community of the state. The communities will absorb the increased costs of public safety, emergency medical systems, public health resources, and sanitation, at a time when staffing of those services is already severely strained in our municipalities.

We have a housing emergency! And we, the citizens of Vermont, are to blame. We knowingly under-invested in our housing stock for the last 30 years, leaving us with a need for 40,000 units this decade. We knowingly have underfunded the community mental health and supportive housing resources that care for the disabled and the elderly. We knowingly exit people from our correctional facilities without the evidenced-based support that we know will allow a successful transition. We knowingly have not increased the minimum wage to a level that allows working families to meet the basic needs of food, warmth, and housing, much less childcare. 

Many of our neighbors sheltering in the hotels are elderly or have significant disabilities; struggle with ongoing mental health and substance-use challenges; are working families with low incomes; left substandard housing for health and safety reasons; or were recently released from corrections. There is a large and growing body of research showing that it is less expensive to provide supportive housing than leaving people unsheltered AND that people carrying all of these challenges can be successfully and permanently housed when their housing is paired with adequate support. 

Hotel-based shelter has been very expensive and not uniformly safe or healthy, but turning half of the people in hotel housing out into the street is unacceptable. And it won’t save money. Over 1,000 of our neighbors will experience the very real trauma, lack of safety, and deprivation that comes from living without any shelter. 

When Governor Scott was recently questioned about his plan for sheltering those in the hotels, he did not offer a plan. Instead, he responded that the administration is taking a novel approach. They are going out and talking with those in the hotels to determine where they might be able to go. The Agency of Human Services interviewed those living in the hotels this past fall to determine their needs. Most responded that they needed assistance with rent and access to someone who can help them secure rental housing. Even assuming that rental units are available — which they are not — funding the supports for the people about to exit hotels does not appear in the proposed FY24 budget. There is no pathway for those about to be ousted from hotels to achieve housing — and literally nowhere for them to go. It is magical thinking to assume otherwise. 

We need leadership and innovative alternatives to the use of private hotel properties for shelter. We need state government to take ownership of this crisis, create these alternatives, and get them staffed. We need to add funding in the state budget to make it happen. At this late date in the budget process, we are seeing none of this. Shame on us!

Beth Ann Maier, M.D., is a retired pediatrician and an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church who lives in Waterbury. She is active in community organizing with Vermont Interfaith Action and has helped organize nighttime and evening overflow shelters in Montpelier.