Hundreds of people relying on motel vouchers for a safe place to sleep during the pandemic have been kicked out, and with full shelters and no available affordable housing, local advocates are at a loss.
An estimated 2,700 people experiencing homelessness took shelter in motels and hotels across the state during the pandemic. Funding through the federal CARES Act allowed the state to greatly expand its emergency housing program, which normally would provide funds for about 500 people a year to stay in motels.
The program normally allows people to stay in motels during the winter, with a 28-day limit. Now, there is no limit based on season or length of stay.
This aid comes, however, with a huge price tag. The program cost nearly $79 million, Human Secretary Services Mike Smith told the Associated Press. While it began phasing out on July 1, people with children, disabilities and those fleeing certain dangerous situations get an 84-day extension.
Additionally, a 14-day extension was recently granted for people with disabilities to prove they qualify.
“The crisis for folks leaving motels is that they really have no place to go. There is no other housing for them,” said Michael Monte, CEO of Champlain Housing Trust.
The Champlain Housing Trust (CHT) develops and manages affordable housing and connects those in need to housing and other services.
Monte said over a four month period between January and April 2021 CHT received 914 applications for living in apartments the organization manages. This is a huge increase in demand and there is no housing to match it, Monte said.
Susan's Place in Essex at capacity
In 2020 the organization used funding from the CARES Act to purchase the former Baymont Inn in Essex Junction and convert it into long-term affordable housing, now called Susan’s Place. Its 68 apartments filled up immediately, Monte said.
CHT is working to bring an additional 100 new affordable apartments to Chittenden County by the end of the year. However, Monte said it’s unfortunate those new apartments won’t be ready when people experiencing homelessness are moved out of the motels.
“Because we have such a demand, and because there’s little vacancies, there’s not a lot of resources for these individuals,” he said. “They really are going to be needing to either go back to shelter or double up with a friend or a family in order for them to be able to survive.”
Steps to End Domestic Violence opens shelter in Colchester
Other local organizations are also bracing for how to meet the increase in demand as motel vouchers wind down.
Steps to End Domestic Violence, based out of Chittenden County, was able to pair with the Champlain Housing Trust to access CARES Act funds to open up a new shelter for those affected by domestic violence in Colchester last year.
This shelter has 21 rooms, as opposed to their previous location which had seven. According to Ciara Kilburn, director of housing services at Steps to End Domestic Violence, the shelter has been at capacity since it opened.
Kilburn said their clients are eligible for another 84 days in the motels because of the danger they are in as victims of domestic violence, however she says that doesn’t mean they haven’t been extremely worried.
“That may buy us some more time with our folks, but there’s still a major housing crisis in this county, in the state and in the nation,” Kilburn said. “We have plenty of folks who either have vouchers or have rental assistance but we just are unable to find any housing that is affordable, or anything that’s open right now.”
Pandemic slows new shelter construction
Rebekah Mott, director of development and communications at the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS), shares the same concern around lack of housing.
Mott said COTS provided housing support to over 1,000 individuals during the pandemic, connecting them to potential permanent housing opportunities. It’s been able to secure permanent housing for 61 households, but the scarcity of units is a huge limitation.
COTS is looking to construct 16 new units for families, but Mott said that won’t take place until 2022.
“Especially with the pandemic it’s exacerbated things like, you know, supply chain issues. There’s extremely high prices for building supplies, limited availability of contractors. So all of those things have made it difficult for those projects to get off the ground or to move along quickly,” Mott said.
Regardless of these challenges, Mott said COTS will continue to work closely with their clients and try to find them the best possible options as more people lose access to motels.
“Our work is not over, you know,” she said. “Life is returning to normal for many Vermonters. And to return to normal for people who are experiencing homelessness is not something to celebrate.”
Editor's Note: Luca Kolba is a student at the University of Vermont and a reporter for the Community News Service, a student-powered partnership with community newspapers.