Report by Anne Donahue
MONTPELIER – Some 2,800 individuals, including children, who have been housed at hotels during the COVID pandemic face losing shelter by July 1, leading to a contentious political battle over the state’s budget and its responsibility to keep a safety net in place.
In late May, the administration announced new steps to make the transition less abrupt. A single mother with two children living in a hotel in Berlin, who identifies as a person who has experienced mental health challenges, has taken a leading role in gathering testimonials and sending them to legislators from others around the state feeling desperation about imminent homelessness.
“Many people are going to die, including myself and children,” Rebecca Duprey wrote. “Do people’s lives really mean that little to you? Continuing to fund housing while creating permanent housing will save lives.”
The prospect of a massive surge of unsheltered Vermonters drove a group of legislators in the House to vote against the state’s budget for the coming year based on its failure to extend the emergency hotel program until alternative housing is found for current residents.
That could set up a further showdown if those legislators block a veto override vote on June 20. They wanted more money allocated to keep the motel program open until alternatives are in place, but the governor vetoed the budget saying it already spent too much, resulting in new taxes.
People with psychiatric disabilities are among those now facing a return to homelessness and some advocates have said that among the repercussions will be an increase in emergency room use.
“They’re getting dumped, and [being told] ‘where you fall is where you fall,’” said Vermont Psychiatric Survivor Executive Director Walt Wade. VPS has been sending outreach staff to support residents in the emergency program since it began with the COVID shutdown in the spring of 2020.
In the days leading up to the budget vote in the legislature, housing advocates fiercely lobbied for an extension while leaders at the statehouse insisted that the program had to end, since the federal COVID money that paid for it had come to an end. Between March 2020 and December 2022, the state paid more than $160 million to hotels and motels. The legislature had already extended the program for four months beyond the administration’s March closing date by adding $19 million in supplemental state funding.
The governor announced in late May that persons who were eligible for emergency housing under pre-COVID criteria would be allowed to re-start the clock on its standard 28-day limit. Those individuals would gain an extra month after July 1 before losing their hotel room.
A special website has been established for ongoing information about the transition at dcf.vermont.gov/pandemic-era-ga-program-2023.
Duprey wrote a searing letter to legislators a few days before the vote on the budget. “How are you going to live with yourselves, sleep at night, when people are outside dying, and you could have done something to help?
“Until you personally, yourselves, every single one of you, Governor included, step into our shoes, don’t cut the budget,” she urged.
Duprey said that those “enduring this crisis on a personal level are for many reasons unable to speak up for themselves. They need a voice. I will be that voice at any cost,” she wrote.
As an abuse survivor, she said, “What I’ve learned from my experience and fight to get back on my feet, is that a state in its entirety, managed to make me feel like I am still living in an abusive situation, this time the abuser is someone different. It’s you…”
She continued to send messages from other residents in the weeks following the budget vote.
The messages from hotel program residents that Duprey forwarded included descriptions of urgent medical and psychiatric conditions and fears of ending up living in a car or in the woods.
“I have bipolar disorder and am currently in recovery from drug use. My life will be at risk if I’m thrown out on the streets,” said one message.
“I have absolutely nowhere to go, besides the streets,” said another. “If that happens, my medical conditions such as PTSD, seizures from two brain surgeries, among other things… It will cause a serious decline to all progress I have made.”
A message forwarded from another individual described being homeless as a result of domestic violence and added, “I have bi-polar, PTSD and I’m in recovery.”
Legislators who spoke on the House floor to object to a budget that did not include an extension of the hotel program appeared to agree with Duprey’s outrage.
“Rather than creating a transitional ramp, we have created a cliff,” said Rep. Jubilee McGill, and “the effects of that decision will be more damaging than the people in this body can even begin to imagine.”
Rep. Mari Cordes insisted, “It is not a money problem but a problem of political will and a disaster in the making.”
Another legislator, Rep. Taylor Small, said in her vote explanation that “I refuse to sign the death certificates of our most vulnerable Vermonters. That is what we are doing with this budget’s unhousing plan.”
Legislative leadership who backed the budget pointed to the addition of $17 million in the budget for services to help relocate hotel residents and to the hundreds of millions that have been invested over the past several years to respond to the state’s housing crisis through new construction and apartment renovations.
Another $16 million was included in the budget to maintain or expand emergency shelters, which currently run at capacity. In the meantime, however, there is little available affordable housing in the state.
Votes from legislators who opposed the budget after their demands for extension of the hotel program were not met combined with the votes of those who opposed the budget for spending too much money.
The bill still passed, 90-53. However, 100 votes will be required to override the governor’s veto, because that vote requires a two-thirds majority.
A failure of an override on June 20 would mean preparing and voting on a new budget and a choice between adding funds for housing to gain back votes or further cutting back funding to avoid a new veto.