In every corner of Vermont, housing has become a major issue. Many people cannot find housing, and if they can, it is often not affordable. Over the next couple weeks, my newsletter will focus on different aspects of the housing crisis. This week, we will focus on the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program. This program was elevated during the Covid-19 pandemic and has been a critical part of the housing discussion ever since.
What is the General Assistance (GA) Emergency Housing Program?
The GA Emergency Housing Program (also known as the motel voucher program) is a state-run program that provides emergency housing for eligible people experiencing homelessness in participating motels and hotels around the state. This program has existed for a long time as a supplement to shelter beds, especially during adverse weather. At the onset of the pandemic, it expanded and became a critical piece of our support structure. We learned that we could shelter everyone. Using federal COVID-19 relief money, we were able to shelter a huge portion of Vermont’s unhoused individuals in hotels and motels around the state to mitigate the spread of the virus at congregate shelters.
This program has been hugely successful beyond the original goals of reducing the spread of COVID-19. Thousands of Vermonters experiencing homelessness had a roof over their head as we slogged through the pandemic. Unfortunately, since 2020, we’ve seen a steep rise in homelessness in Vermont. As a state, we have the second highest rate of homelessness in the country. However, because we have continued the GA Emergency Housing Program, last year we also had the lowest rate of unsheltered people who are experiencing homelessness in the country (source).
As the threat of COVID began to recede and federal money has dried up, the legislature has continued to fund a version of this program that is still sheltering over 1,600 households today (down from its peak of nearly 3,000 households).
What is the status of the program now?
The budget starting last July included additional funding for the motel voucher program to extend it through April 1st, 2024. This funding came with some changes in eligibility requirements. This left around 1000 people no longer qualifying and they were exited back onto the streets. Still, as of today, over 1,600 households are sheltered due to this program.
As April 1st approaches, the majority of these 1,600 households are in jeopardy of losing their shelter. Neither the Governor’s Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) nor his budget for the coming year include additional funding for the GA housing program, meaning that there would be no extension and the remaining households would be unsheltered again. His budget also includes some other changes to the emergency shelter program which would drastically reduce the number of days that individuals can seek shelter (more on that in the next section).
All hope is not lost, however. As the Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) has been making its way through the legislature, the House and Senate have proposed an amendment to the Governor’s proposal to include funding to continue the motel voucher program for some households through the end of the fiscal year (June 30th). Hopefully this extension will give our Representatives and Senators time to evaluate longer-term solutions for sheltering people experiencing homelessness as we work to address the lack of affordable housing units. We know that when individuals and families are housed, it is the foundational step towards economic and social stability and therefore is a critical investment for all of us.
What are the administration’s proposed changes?
In the proposal from Governor Scott’s administration, funding for hotel and motel vouchers would have ceased completely, meaning there will be no year-round shelter available for people who need it. Shelter will still be available on a night-to-night basis for those who qualify, with a 28-day-per-year cap for everyone and no added relief in freezing weather.
Certain qualifying individuals and households (families with children, people who receive SSI/SSDI, 65+) will be eligible for adverse weather condition shelter, meaning that they will be able to stay in motels from December 15th - March 15th. This covers less than half of the households who are currently sheltered. Disabled individuals who are not currently enrolled in SSI/SSDI will not be included in this category.
In extreme weather in some districts, additional warming locations will pop up only when temperatures reach -20°F. -10°F is not cold enough for this to be in effect.
The House BAA amendment also includes a $75 cap on how much the state can spend per night on a room. The cap was increased to $80 in the Senate BAA version. This is much lower than the market rate of most motels and hotels that have been participating in the program, which means this will likely lead to many business owners deciding not to participate, lowering the number of available rooms.
Vermont is a “shelter-first” state. This means that people seeking refuge are first referred to the closest available shelters. When there are no shelter beds available, motel rooms are the backup. The Governor’s proposal does include a shelter-expansion plan, but it only adds about 180 beds. Since our homelessness population in Vermont currently outpaces the number of shelter beds available in the state by about 1,000, this is clearly inadequate.
As you have probably guessed by now, this proposed plan raised alarms for advocates and others who care about the welfare of unhoused Vermonters. Severely limiting access to shelter, especially in the winter months, will put thousands of lives in danger. In 2023, Burlington (which tends to be one of the warmer areas in the state) had temperatures dip below freezing 117 days. With most people only having 28 days of allowance for shelter, this means many will be without shelter during the next winter season.
While relatively successful, the program is complicated and is often difficult to navigate for people who need it. Many people have been forced to leave the program for not being able to get a hold of staff to renew their vouchers, for not having filled out paperwork correctly, or for other reasons that have nothing to do with their need. Adding in additional hurdles and tightening qualifications will only exacerbate the problem.
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the BAA that include funding for the motel voucher program for additional individuals through June 30th. The final details of the bill will be resolved in conference committee.
Temporary extensions of this program are a necessary short-term fix to ensure that we do not slide backwards in our treatment of Vermonters who are experiencing homelessness. The data has shown that homelessness is a housing problem and not a moral failing of those who experience it. I am hopeful that this year the legislature can create a path towards a longer-term solution for shelter that meets Vermonters’ needs.
Lt Governor David Zuckerman