BENNINGTON — The Vermont Legislature has pushed through a bill that will allow those using motel vouchers to keep a roof over their heads to stay put a little longer.
The financial burden shifts from federal relief funds that dry up at the end of March, to almost $19 million in state funding. Gov. Phil Scott did not sign bill H.145 — a fiscal 2023 budget readjustment bill introduced by the Appropriations Committee — but also did not veto it and allowed it to pass into law.
Chloe Viner Collins, executive director at the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, has mixed feelings about the bill.
“I’m torn. I think it’s amazing and incredible that we’ve been able to house so many people and provide emergency housing since the pandemic hit,” she said.
“I also think that it’s continued to be a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” Viner Collins said.
The voucher program was funded as a solution for unhoused people who couldn’t be placed in shelters during the pandemic. Viner Collins said that about 60 percent of the homeless population was testing positive for COVID at that time, and that motels were a way around that. Now, the Band-Aid on a COVID problem persists in a world that is emerging from the pandemic.
“We keep extending vouchers with no real plan to house people long term,” Viner Collins said. “I think the government has probably spent more on single-night vouchers than it would have cost to actually come up with a sustainable solution to solve homelessness in Vermont.”
Viner Collins wasn’t able to give an accurate figure on how many people will be affected by the new legislation, but estimated that without the extension of the vouchers, about 200 people in Bennington would have had nowhere to go.
Viner Collins said Bennington shelters are at capacity. The coalition’s nine-family shelter — Norton House — and their 16-bed adult shelter at 966 Main St. are full. She has been able to keep Thatcher House open with grants after it was scheduled to be closed in January, but that facility is still slated to shut its doors in April.
“I know so many people who are in the motels now when we’re full in both our shelters, and we turn away a lot of people, and it’s really a relief to know we won’t have to turn away people in the cold …
“I also feel continued frustration at the inability of both the town and state to look at long-term, fiscally sensible, trauma-informed, practical solutions, like actually expanding emergency housing in the county, actually having a warming shelter, actually having mental health resources and beds. There are just so many resources that are not available in our community, to the people most in need,” she said.
The bulk of the money that is being allocated to the Department for Children and Families — nearly $13.8 million — comes with more stringent requirements than the criteria used to house homeless in need throughout the winter. Those who meet the new guidelines will be housed from April 1 through June 30.
That portion of the funding earmarked specifically to provide “temporary housing to vulnerable households,” which are now more narrowly defined as those who: lost their home as the result of a natural disaster, are fleeing domestic violence, have children or are pregnant mothers, are on Social Security or disability, or were recently evicted.
The remaining $5 million is aimed more generally at the homeless problem. It will include those who don’t necessarily fall under the “vulnerable households” umbrella, but otherwise meet the same housing need and income requirements that kept them sheltered throughout the “adverse weather” portion of the year from Dec. 15 to March 15. The Legislature’s extension on the program keeps them housed from March 16 to May 31.
Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, Progressive for Bennington-Rutland District, is vice chair of the General and Housing Committee. He explained the rationale for the final version of the bill, which required some compromise from the House and the Senate.
“The idea being that those people who will be kicked out of the motel voucher program are not just turned loose on the streets,” Chesnut-Tangerman explained of the $5 million allocation. “We have some resources; let’s look at what’s available.”
Chesnut-Tangerman wasn’t able to say exactly what those resources would mean for an area like Bennington, where shelters are at capacity, noting that is handled by a different legislative committee.
“It’s not that we aren’t housing people,” Chesnut-Tangerman said. “It’s just that the need continues to grow as fast as we are addressing it.”
“I would say we have been in emergency response mode for a couple of years,” he said. “We are in a crisis. (The mentality was) ‘Let’s use what we have, get people off the streets, out of the woods into shelter’ without long-term strategy.”
Chesnut-Tangerman did mention that longer-term solutions are in the works, however. Additions to H.276, the Rental Housing Registry bill, call for a working group of multiple state agencies to provide an interim report on a more sustainable solution to homelessness by January 2024 and action steps taken by May.
“In legislative terms, that’s working at the speed of light,” Chesnut-Tangerman said.
Despite these efforts, those living with the problem remain in limbo, wondering what’s next if there is no further extension of the voucher program.
“I’ll be on the street corner,” said Clark Green, who has been making use of the voucher program to stay at the Starlight Inn, south of Bennington on Route 7. “I’ve been very fortunate that I wasn’t on the street. But that only goes so far, and they’re going to say, ‘Hit the road,’ you know?”
Green, 61, has been a Bennington resident much of his life. He is a 1982 graduate of New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, its first graduating class. He taught there for five years and had chef apprenticeships at Chez Henri in Warren, as well as working in Nantucket, Mass.
Green fell on hard times after the strain of working in the restaurant industry eventually led him to be divorced, he said. After the loss of his parents and the repossession of their house where he’d been staying, Green had a falling out with his sister. He’s been homeless since then and has been at Starlight for over a year.
Green said that he went through a couple of counselors who were helping him look for housing and employment, but they either left or retired, and over time he felt like he had slipped through the cracks. He didn’t specify which agency or organization.
“I had to call them,” he said of being transitioned to a new caseworker. “I was just left open. There was nobody. They leave you hanging. You call down there, and no one knows what you’re talking about.”
“Look at my background. You don’t trust many people when you’re in my position,” Green later said.
To Green’s point, distrust of the systems around them is a problem for many of the unhoused people who service agencies are trying to engage. Green’s neighbor at Starlight, Bill Smith, says he has been at Starlight for about four months.
“I don’t like living in apartment buildings. I hate them because I’m just surrounded by people. I’m not much of a people person. My trust is very limited,” Smith said. “I just don’t trust people. You ask any homeless person, they don’t want to talk to you. They’ve been screwed over by the system so bad that they don’t want anything to do with them.”
Smith, 53, said he’s been all over New England for years, and while he also made it a point to mention that he feels fortunate to have the chance to stay at Starlight, he wants to move back to Tennessee where he’s originally from. He lost his wife, Debbie, to cancer last February, but Smith said he knows plenty of homeless people who have similar struggles.
“Everybody who’s homeless has their stories,” he said. “A lot of those stories go untold, either because they don’t want to tell them, or nobody wants to listen.”
Smith feels that the stigma of being homeless is a barrier to even opening a dialogue, let alone taking action to help people experiencing homeless.
“Appearance is everything. … (People) don’t judge you by your heart. People don’t judge you by your work. They don’t get to know the real you, or why you’re in the situation you’re in.”
Further compounding the problem is that many of those staying in motels like Starlight are by themselves. Not only are they situated in motels south of town with little transportation or access to food and services, but they are socially isolated.
Viner Collins weighed in on the problematic model of putting homeless people alone in motel rooms. She summed it up by referring to a quote from author Johann Hari: “He writes, ‘The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection.’ And so when you’re putting people that struggle with substance abuse, mental health or something different, all alone in a hotel room, isolated from supports, I think that model can be negative,” she said.
“During COVID, when I had to place them in a hotel room, it was very noticeable how many people either relapsed or went back to abusive partners, or regressed in some other way once they were isolated.”