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Burlington officials assessing options to help individuals leaving hotel voucher program

Burlington City Hall
Burlington City Hall

Burlington, Vermont officials are assessing potential options to deal with an expected influx of homeless individuals as a state-level pandemic-era hotel-motel voucher program ends.

Mayor Miro Weinberger held a virtual briefing and later briefed the Burlington City Council Monday on the city’s and Chittenden County’s response to a state request for proposals on how to respond as people exit the hotel-motel program.

During a Burlington City Council work session, Mayor Weinberger explained how and why the city and stakeholders are crafting emergency plans.

“The legislative session ended with some clarity about resources that would be available to help with the transition of the end of the motel program. That budget was then vetoed leaving some question as to the status of those resources. But we are moving forward confident that they will in some fashion be made available. And the city was, along with other organizations and municipalities formally invited by the state, by the Agency of Human Services, the Department of Children and Families, to be part of responding to the ending of the motel program.”

The city is proposing a three-part plan to address an expected spike in homelessness. Burlington Special Assistant to End Homelessness Sarah Russell said one focus of the city’s plan is expanding emergency overnight and daytime shelter capacity for adults.

“In the evening we’ve proposed utilizing the largely vacant state office building at 108 Cherry Street due to its proximity to resources, services and transportation. The building would allow offices to be used for shelter accommodations in addition to planning space for staff and a daytime shelter available to the community for up to 75 people. We are in close coordination with the Agency of Human Services and have not yet received confirmation of use of this location. But our inspection, habitability and safety processes need to be in place before a decision can be made.”

The Chittenden County Homeless Alliance includes social service and housing agencies, community members and those who have experienced housing insecurity. It uses a Coordinated Entry System to streamline access to housing while providing support and resources. Alliance co-chair Will Towne is concerned that a large number of vulnerable individuals are now at risk.

“We’re advocating for an extension of the motel stay for vulnerable households and we will closely collaborate with housing and service providers to prioritize resources leading to rapid placements in permanent housing or transitional housing for these households in motels. We estimate if AHS (Vermont Agency of Human Services) agrees to extend the motel stays that we can house these 165 households by February ’24 pending that all the resources that we expect to come on line do in fact do that.”

No formal action was taken by the Burlington City Council following the presentation.

The city estimates it will cost $2.06 million to establish shelters and $1.7 to 2 million for extended hotel stays. Speaking on WAMC’s Congressional Corner, Senator Peter Welch acknowledged that the federal hotel-motel funding had been a lifeline for Vermont and many other states.

“Vermont’s not unique but our problem is severe. Vermont has the second highest per capita homeless rate in the country after California. You know the federal funding was a lifeline for the state. It’s extremely expensive. But now we have the federal funding ending. It’s a huge challenge for the state to try to come up with replacement funding. I would be willing, if there was some possibility, to get some federal help to our state because I think it’s unrealistic to think that the state can, or any state really, can just keep picking up the tab on what is a national problem. But we have a housing crisis in Vermont and the folks who will be now no longer able to stay in the hotel, where are they going to go? So we’ve got to be building more housing.”

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