Rep. John Killacky

Rep. John Killacky (D, district 7-3)

Vermont did so many things right responding to COVID-19, including taking care of its homeless. Past annual surveys estimated the unhoused population to be just over 1,000 statewide. However, during the pandemic, federal dollars supported twice that number in 76 hotels throughout the state. 

As the emergency period ends, myriad issues are at play as we continue to support our most vulnerable.

Last month, 2,051 adults and 373 children were provided shelter in 1,742 hotel rooms statewide. In Chittenden County, 608 adults and 90 children were housed in 523 rooms, including 66 adults in South Burlington’s Holiday Inn. In addition to housing, with collaborative support from many community partners, food and other services were also provided. Vermont was nationally recognized for its efforts. 

However, none of this is sustainable without significant federal subsidy, which is now winding down.

As of July 1, many hotels returned to serving tourists and travelers and no longer provide rooms for the homeless. Eligibility criteria also changed this month, narrowing the parameters on who could still qualify for emergency housing. Still broader than pre-pandemic times, those who are age 60-plus, families with children up to age 18, women who are pregnant, and people with disabilities were granted stays for an additional 84 days.

With these changes, numbers decreased dramatically. Currently, 1,163 adults and 345 children are sheltered in 994 rooms statewide, including Chittenden County, where 352 adults and 89 children live in 300 rooms. The Department for Children and Families estimates these numbers will further decrease by the fall to approximately 650 rooms — still double the number the state supported pre-pandemic.

Emergency short-term stays in hotel rooms were never intended to end homelessness, but to be another component in safety net provisions that also included congregate shelters throughout the state. Many of those have now reopened but renovated with less capacity and increased social distancing to mitigate future contagion issues.

This transitional period has been fraught with uncertainty and increased anxiety as residents tried to understand if they qualified to remain under new criteria or, if not, could they access federal relief dollars to help those leaving? Available is $2,500 with flexible parameters.

Anecdotally, some have used this money to return to families and supportive environments out of state; others are sharing rooms and couch-surfing once again. Tents also qualify for this support, although encampments in Burlington and other cities have not seen as dramatic an increase in populations as feared.

For those who can find housing, up to $8,000 can assist with security deposits, first and last months’ rents, and moving expenses. However, entry-level housing remains a daunting barrier. Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity approved 410 housing vouchers for Chittenden, Addison, Franklin and Grand Isle counties, although only 210 have been rehoused. Burlington’s Committee on Temporary Shelter was able to rehouse 79 folks. Herculean efforts against formidable odds — still far short of what is needed.

Once the pandemic-mandated moratorium on evictions is relaxed at the end of this month, housing insecurity will only escalate, sadly increasing those unhoused in Vermont. Although this year’s state budget contains substantial investments to increase shelters and affordable housing units, these will not be realized for two to three years. 

In the interim, we have a humanitarian crisis here in Vermont. So many COVID lessons pointed to the importance of housing as health care. Continued collaboration between community providers, state agencies and the Legislature will be essential in the months ahead.

Rep. John R. Killacky is a Democrat who represents South Burlington in the Vermont House of Representatives.

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