Wednesday July 10, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Senior Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A cut in state funding for emergency housing vouchers has local advocates for the homeless scrambling to provide shelter for dozens of local families expected to lose state-funded motel rooms next week.

Motel vouchers

The state has provided vouchers to the homeless for years that allow them to stay in a motel. But that program will be significantly reduced beginning July 15. The program reductions were initially set to take effect on July 1 but were postponed by the administration of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.

With initial plans for housing those families inside local parishes scuttled due to building codes and bylaws, homeless advocates are now looking to create a small tent city to ensure that families have shelter. Mary Gerisch, speaking on behalf of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Council, Bennington Coalition for the Homeless and other groups, asked for the board’s help and support.

"I’m here tonight because you are our elected representatives for the people of the town of Bennington. We trust you. We know you’re going to take good care of us and that’s why we elect you," Gerisch said. "We couldn’t think of anywhere to go but here to say, ‘Please, we need help with this problem that has been invisible because everybody has been in hotels, which is now going to be very visible because everyone is going to be on the sidewalk.’"

Vermont Department of Children and Families Commissioner David Yacavone said the state spent about $4.4 million during the last fiscal year on emergency housing. But lawmaker and the administration of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin agreed on a significant reduction this year, passing a budget into law that included just $1.5 million for the program.

State officials are looking to curb the practice of paying for motel rooms for the homeless. When shelters are full, the state provides a voucher that allows those in need to seek shelter at a motel. The focus now is on increasing funding for community-based intervention programs, Yacavone said.

"The Legislature got impatient and said, ‘My goodness, get with it. We can’t keep putting people in hotels,’" he said.

The emergency housing program was traditionally used for catastrophic situations. It has expanded in recent years, however, to include assistance for any situation.

But with a 65 percent funding cut in place, Yacavone said DCF looked to create a system that would provide emergency vouchers for the most needy Vermonters. The system, launched under the state’s emergency rule-making process, awards points based on life circumstances. Each of the 11 categories is assigned a point value and applicants must have at least six points to be eligible for an emergency voucher.

The point-based system was designed -- using statistical sampling -- to limit the number of people eligible for the program, according to Yacavone.

"We said, ‘Let’s try to design a point system that approves roughly 35 percent of the applicants,’" he said.

For example, a disabled veteran is valued at one point. A person 65 years old or older is worth one point. Someone who has at least one child under the age of 6 would be awarded three points.

Critics, like Gerisch, say the new system will prevent a significant number of needy people from receiving the shelter they need.

People who experience a catastrophic event, such as a flood or fire, will not be subjected to the new system. Exemptions to the point system will also be in place during extreme cold weather.

Still, Yacavone said people currently using vouchers to stay in a motel will lose it based on the new rules.

"When you don’t have enough money you have to target the most in need. I think that’s what this does," he said. "Half of the people served in the program last year were single adults. That never happened before when it was (just for catastrophic reasons). There is a need to tighten that up and that’s what we’re trying to do."

Even though the voucher program has been cut, funding to community action groups has been increased for housing programs. Yacavone said Bennington County received $99,000 last year for housing programs and is set to receive $162,000 this year. About $2.9 million in state funds will be sent to community-based groups this year.

"We’re shifting our response. It’s much more community-based," he said. "At the same time we’re increasing significant our community capacity to help people before they become homeless."

Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers, the administration and even homeless advocates all agreed that the voucher system was costing the state too much.

"Quite frankly, the current system of just handing out motel rooms was not the answer," Sears said. "We’re hoping that the rules that were developed by the department will provide the services to those who need it."

The Autumn Inn, a motel in Bennington, received more than $57,000 last year from the voucher program. A motel in South Burlington was paid more than $270,000, according to Sears.

Some Select Board members raised several ways the town could help on Monday, including direct assistance from the town.

"What about starting our own voucher program?" Van Houten said. "If those hotel owners are willing to extend that same discount to the program, it might keep things in place as opposed to the chaos that will come up."

Thomas Jacobs said the town should consider paying for opening the Red Cross emergency shelter at the local middle school. The Red Cross will not cover the expense because it is not disaster-related.

"The fact of the matter is that we have a responsibility to provide a safety net to those people that are citizens, or otherwise, of our community. Our charge can and should be to provide safe, if not comfortable, situation for them. I think tents are not a very good approach to dealing with this type of situation. It calls for more of a permanent structure," Jacobs said. "Even if it costs us some temporary assistance in the form of dollars I think we should find it because we have to be a safety net for these folks."

Bennington Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd said it would cost the town about $1,100 per day to pick up the cost of housing the local families in motels. He cautioned against the town providing the funding.

"I don’t think that we should expect that the town government is going to take over for the state government. If the community is going to come together on this then fundraising in the community is appropriate. Looking to town government to pick up the expense, I think, is inappropriate. We don’t have the money," he said.

Select Board Chairman Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr. encouraged residents to provide campers or other temporary shelters if they can.

Contact Neal P. Goswami at goswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami