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Starting next week, Vermonters can get motel housing when cold temperatures are forecast

A motel with two stories and a fence and railing on the upper level
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public File
The Colonnade Inn in Lyndonville was one of many hotels and motels across the state that participated in Vermont's pandemic-era emergency housing program. Photographed June 20, 2023.

The Department for Children and Families unveiled a policy Monday that will provide unhoused Vermonters with free motel rooms for three months this winter. But some advocates say the plan will still expose vulnerable residents to the elements.

Starting on Nov. 15, Vermonters experiencing homelessness will be eligible for motel housing when temperatures are forecast to dip below 20 degrees, or below 32 degrees if there’s a 50% or greater chance of precipitation.

And starting on Dec. 15, all income-eligible individuals and households will be allowed to stay in state-subsidized motels fulltime until the middle of March.

More from Vermont Public: Homelessness in Vermont has increased — and towns are responding differently to the problem

Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner at DCF, said the adverse-weather program is a “life-saving policy.”

“To ensure that we’re housing the most vulnerable Vermonters when weather conditions are really just too cold for people to be outside,” Gray said Tuesday.

Advocates including Brenda Siegel, executive director of End Homelessness Vermont, say the plan doesn’t provide enough protection from the cold.

Siegel said DCF’s policy could force mothers with children and people with disabilities to live outside in below-freezing temperatures between now and Dec. 15, and then again on March 15, when the full shelter coverage policy expires.

“We’re getting hundreds of calls every single week from people who are asking us if cold weather [policy] has started, and begging us for a solution, because they are freezing outdoors right now,” Siegel told Vermont Public.

“We’re getting hundreds of calls every single week from people who are asking us if cold weather [policy] has started, and begging us for a solution, because they are freezing outdoors right now."
Brenda Siegel, End Homelessness Now

The unveiling of the policy comes as shelter providers across the state report substantial increases in the number of unhoused Vermonters. Newly unsheltered households with children, and individuals that qualify for Social Security disability insurance, are eligible for up to 28 days of motel housing regardless of weather conditions.

Siegel, however, said many people in those situations are about to exhaust their 28-day allotment. And she said that means a single mother with children could, under the state policy, have to figure out a way to keep her kids warm outside on a 25-degree day in late November or early December.

“So there will babies and children on the street, as well as people with disabilities and medical vulnerabilities, and it’s just way too cold to be outside,” Siegel said.

DCF officials confirmed Tuesday that the scenario Siegel fears could play out in some instances. Gray also said limiting eligibility from Nov. 15 through Dec. 15 would allow the state to reserve motel rooms for newly unhoused people entering the system for the first time.

“And if we start housing people right now, then there won’t be room for somebody that might come in later on that maybe is more vulnerable, for example families with children,” Gray said.

“[I]f we start housing people right now, then there won’t be room for somebody that might come in later on that maybe is more vulnerable, for example families with children."
Miranda Gray, Department for Children and Families

State officials estimate that the policy will result in about 1,500 households living in motel rooms this winter. Rick DeAngelis, executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven in Washington County, said the cold-weather policy “isn’t perfect.”

“But it’s going to help a lot of people,” he said.

Between expanded shelter capacity and the new motel housing policy, DeAngelis said he’s hopeful Washington County will be able to make it through the winter without any catastrophic outcomes.

“These are all important pieces to provide that kind of safety and coverage,” he said.

More from Vermont Public: A new law clears the way for a homeless shelter in the Northeast Kingdom

Anne Sosin, a public health researcher at Dartmouth College, said Vermont needs to end the practice of cycling unhoused people in and out of shelter beds. And she said single-night eligibility windows from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15, and then again from March 15 to April 15, is destabilizing.

“We know that safe and stable shelter saves lives and can be a gateway to permanent housing,” Sosin said. “And having a program that requires individuals to renew on a daily basis really undermines that stability that good shelter can offer. This is not a good solution for people that are experiencing homelessness or our communities.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or contact reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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