As motel program winds down for unhoused Vermonters, state looks to out-of-state contractors for solution

The Agency of Human Services on Wednesday released a request for proposals for emergency shelter staffing and services, with the hope of providing up to 1,000 shelter beds statewide. The motel housing program will begin phasing out on June 1. (VtDigger - Mike Dougherty)

The Agency of Human Services on Wednesday released a request for proposals for emergency shelter staffing and services, with the hope of providing up to 1,000 shelter beds statewide. The motel housing program will begin phasing out on June 1. (VtDigger - Mike Dougherty) VTDigger — Mike Dougherty

By LOLA DUFFORT

VTDigger

Published: 05-29-2023 5:34 PM

With close to 3,000 unhoused Vermonters slated to leave a state-run motel program in two waves over the spring and summer and local shelters already full, the state is beginning to sketch out an emergency response – by looking outside Vermont’s borders for a solution.

The Agency of Human Services on Wednesday released a request for proposals for emergency shelter staffing and services, with the goal of providing up to 1,000 shelter beds statewide. The state will prioritize congregating day and overnight shelters in Washington, Rutland and Chittenden counties, according to the request.

Just weeks ago, one top official in Gov. Phil Scott’s administration was expressing confidence that many in the program would “self-resolve” their housing problems, despite the state’s skyrocketing housing prices and growing homelessness. The state’s request is the first public evidence that it is in fact contemplating a massive mobilization – one that could, if successfully enacted, more than double the state’s existing shelter capacity.

Separately, the Department for Children and Families reached out to local service providers on Monday to solicit “letters of interest” about support services, shelter expansions or outreach programs the state might fund. The department’s commissioner, Chris Winters, said Thursday those projects remain the priority. But local nonprofits have said for months that they have little capacity to scale up their services, and Winters characterized the request for proposals as a “contingency plan” in the event that large gaps in coverage do indeed emerge.

“We keep hearing there’s just no one to run these shelters – all these community action agencies are stressed out and fully tapped for all of their resources,” he said. “So one way that we could help them, or do it separately, is to have staffing come in. And that staffing might be from out of state.”

Winters acknowledged a significant amount of uncertainty about what might come out of the state’s open-ended request – including who might respond or how much they might ask to charge. At the last minute, lawmakers added $12.5 million into next year’s budget to spend on a transition plan out of the hotels, and Winters said this is the pot of money the department is planning to lean on to fund the effort.

Asked if this might be enough to cover a yearlong contract to deliver such services on this scale, Winters said he wasn’t sure.

“We don’t quite know the size and scope yet. And we don’t know what the bids are going to look like when they come in,” he said.

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Winters also said that mobilizing the Vermont National Guard remains “on the table” and under active discussion. But the Guard, like local shelters, he said, is “woefully understaffed.”

“They have a lot of vacancies in the National Guard – a lot less people than they used to have. And if we do call on the National Guard, it pulls them away from all the other good work they’re doing – lots of folks working as first responders or, you know, in health care,” he said. And running a homeless shelter, he added, “looks a lot different than temporarily housing someone in the middle of a disaster.”

Whatever new supports are stood up will need to go up within an extraordinarily tight timeline. Roughly 800 people will lose their eligibility for motel shelter on June 1. Another 2,000 people who qualified for an extra month of housing because of their age, disability or special circumstance, will follow on July 1.

Local service providers greeted the news of the state’s request for bids with mixed emotions – relief that administration officials were indeed mobilizing some sort of response and frustration that it was arriving at such a late hour.

“I’m encouraged that there’s a plan in motion,” said Chris Donnelly, the director of community relations at Champlain Housing Trust in Chittenden County. “I wonder why it’s taken this long.”

He was echoed by Rick DeAngelis, the co-executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, who said he was of “two minds” on the matter.

“One mind was: Boy, I wish we had had this three months ago,” he said. “I guess my other mind was very grateful that it came.”

Whether or not to continue the motel program, which was dramatically expanded during the pandemic thanks to an influx of federal cash – now gone – has been the subject of fierce debate throughout the session. Indeed, while a budget has already been passed by lawmakers – but not yet acted upon by the governor — one group of Democrats and Progressives are still pressuring Democratic leaders to re-open budget talks to continue the program.

When asked about the criticism that the state’s effort was welcome but late, Winters said that administration officials hadn’t known “where the Legislature was going to land.”

“Everybody was talking about it coming to an end and then pushing it out for another three months, or another six months, or pushing it out for another year. And so there’s never been, you know, this inflection point of OK, it’s really ending right? Here’s how we enact the action plan,” he said.

Paul Dragon, the executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, said he understood that the state was in a “tough bind,” and needed to urgently expand shelter capacity. But he also expressed frustration that the state had not more diligently invested in such infrastructure before now.

“I’ve been testifying for the past three years – ever since I’ve been with CVOEO – on the need for additional emergency shelter space,” he said. Dragon added that what Vermont needs most is trauma-informed shelter space, with single-occupancy rooms, not congregate facilities.

And he expressed some apprehension about who, exactly, might be inclined to answer the state’s call.

“And I guess my question would be: Are these nonprofits that are coming in? What’s their motivation?” he said. “Our correctional system is already privatized, and we know that that has not had necessarily the best outcomes when we bring in outside contractors to do the work for Vermonters who are most vulnerable.”