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Harral Hamilton, a lead advocate at Groundworks Collaborative in Brattleboro, puts sheets on the beds as they get ready to open the emergency shelter on Aug. 16.

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MONTPELIER -- The Department of Children and Families is being urged by field experts to reconsider terminating benefits that provide motel units to many immunocompromised people, domestic violence survivors and pregnant women without housing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"First, we ask the Department to extend benefits for as long as possible, dictated only by room availability," a letter to DCF states. "Of the 881 households in the program, it appears likely that around two-thirds of them — around 600 households — will be exited on Sept. 23. It seems unlikely that two-thirds of the motels and hotels are declining to continue to participate in the program as of Sept. 23."

The author's estimate assumes that 141 families with children will be eligible to remain in the program and no more than a quarter of the individuals with disabilities or about 154 of 617. The remainder of the households -- about 463 people with disabilities, 43 seniors, 8 pregnant women and 51 domestic violence survivors -- would no longer be eligible. 

A working group of service providers involved in the General Assistance emergency housing program wrote the letter and include representation from Groundworks Collaborative in Brattleboro, Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, Committee on Temporary Shelter, Upper Valley Haven, Vermont Legal Aid, Champlain Housing Trust, BROC Community Action and Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. The group formed last spring to help figure out next steps of the emergency motel program with state agencies. 

Groundworks Executive Director Josh Davis said through the process, new eligibility requirements were introduced "because folks were in the motels for about a year-and-a-half through the pandemic so it looked like we were transitioning away from COVID and funding seemed to be dwindling for this program." The new requirements affected new participants starting June 1 and participants already in the program on July 1. 

"That's why we saw a ramp up to opening the overnight shelter at 54 South Main, the new shelter," Davis said, referring to his organization's facility. "And we were able to open that in August in large part because of the number of people we saw coming out of the motels and camping." 

Individuals staying in the motels who had a medically certified disability could get an extension of 84 days, which ends Wednesday. For the Brattleboro area, that could mean about 50 people will be out of motels and looking for a place to stay. 

Davis said since the eligibility requirements were rolled out, groups learned Federal Emergency Management Agency extended funding for non-congregant shelters until the end of December. He credited that source with providing the bulk of financing for the motel program for the last year-and-a-half. 

Groundworks shelters are at capacity and the group is in need of more staff. 

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"So to even maintain what we have is a real challenge right now so the addition of 50 folks into our community with no housing, we quite frankly don't know what that looks like and aren't prepared for that," Davis said. "These are folks we are really concerned about."

His organization also is seeing more COVID-19 cases. In the last two or three weeks, about seven positive cases were identified among Groundworks clients.

In the letter, the working group acknowledged that access to temporary lodging will be more difficult to obtain during the leaf-peeping and ski seasons. The group encouraged DCF to "offer rates and terms to the motels and hotels at least equal to those demanded of tourists."

"We were happy to hear that the Department is pursuing long-term contracts with motels to ensure access to locations to offer temporary lodging to ensure that we can continue to meet the needs of new program applicants," states the letter. "Given that FEMA is offering a 100 percent cost-share until year’s end, we urge you to offer adequate financial securities to motels and hotels to minimize their anxieties regarding risk of losses." 

The working group also requested that anyone whose benefits are being terminated from the program be offered "an essential payment to help households transition to other short-term housing solutions."

As of Sunday morning, Davis said the working group has not received a reply from DCF. The Windham County delegation of state legislators also sent a letter to the department sharing the same concerns. 

Gary Stroud of Brattleboro, who has experienced homelessness and independently helps people navigate the service system, worries about what will happen to community members if the benefits are not extended. 

"We need government to take action now and not wait," he said, "because this is not going to go away. It's going to keep snowballing, and getting worse and worse."


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