MIDDLEBURYâ Josh Lisenby is worried about July 1st. He’s trying to figure out where he’ll sleep and store his belongings when he leaves the Courtyard Middlebury, a Marriott hotel, in less than a week.
Like many homeless Vermonters, Lisenby lived in a hotel during parts of the Covid-19 pandemic. But early next month, when the state tightens eligibility for the emergency program, Lisenby will be among hundreds who will be forced out of housing available to them since March 2020.
Lisenby, 45, who has worked in the restaurant business over the years, is currently unemployed. He struggles with anxiety and says his mental health has made it difficult to keep a job.
âI could probably go out and find a job now, but I’m afraid if I do that it will all start to pile up again and I’ll end up losing that job and having another bad mark on my record,â Lisenby said.
He is now seeking mental health treatment for the first time in his life and hopes that a formal diagnosis could help him qualify for housing. He has already filled out housing applications, but doesn’t expect to lock down a new residence until the looming July 1 date. For now, he plans to live in a tent when he leaves the hotel later this week.
âI don’t know if this is the smartest thing, but the best option for me is probably going to be camping somewhere in the woods,â he said.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the state has placed homeless people in motels and hotels across the state. But after Gov. Phil Scott lifted all pandemic restrictions last month, and as the economy reopens, state officials are ending unlimited eligibility for the emergency housing program.
Some people, including those caring for children, who have a disability, or who are fleeing dangerous or life-threatening conditions, may extend their stay. Some may ask to stay in the program indefinitely.
As of Wednesday, the state rented nearly 1,600 rooms to homeless households across the state. But officials expect that on July 1, more than 700 households will no longer be eligible for emergency housing.
The phasing out of the pandemic emergency program worries advocates and community service providers, who say the transition is too abrupt and there is not enough housing or shelter capacity for them. people who have to leave hotels and motels this week.
“There is literally nowhere for these people to go,” said Mairead O’Reilly, a lawyer with Legal Aid in Vermont. “We are really about to jump off a cliff, and we are about to enter the next health crisis with hundreds of Vermonters having to find a place to camp.”
The Scott administration says hotels and motels were never meant to be a permanent solution to the state’s homeless crisis.
Mike Smith, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, said this week that people living in hotels for long periods of time are isolated and have a harder time getting meals, mental health care and other services.
Smith said the state’s goal is to help households leaving hotels and motels find permanent or shared accommodation. The state is giving households leaving the program $ 2,500 to help them move to new housing, and Smith said they will continue to have access to emergency benefits, including food and rent assistance. .
âThese households aren’t just being ‘laid off’ without supports and services,â Smith wrote in a comment this week.
Officials also expect the state to eventually lose access to money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which the state relied on to fund the emergency housing program. . Maintaining the program in the current fiscal year, which expires June 30, has cost $ 79 million.
The plan to phase out the emergency housing program was developed by a task force made up of lawmakers, state officials, community service providers and other groups. including Legal Aid.
Preparation “frantically” for July 1st
As July approaches, Rick DeAngelis, executive director of Good Samaritan Haven, a homeless shelter in Barre, said his staff were “frantically” trying to increase capacity in anticipation of increased demand.
He hopes to add 50 more beds over the next six months, on top of the 25 the shelter already has. But he doesn’t expect to be able to prepare them until July 1.
DeAngelis said Vermont’s approach to tackling homelessness during the pandemic was “one of the best efforts in the country.”
âBut here we are, we are coming to the end, and I can’t say that I support where we are right now,â he said. “It’s pretty scary.”
DeAngelis would like to see a more gradual transition of the emergency housing program.
“The idea that maybe 100 people in Washington County are just leaving the motel rooms they’ve been in for a year, a lot of them, to me is not an acceptable solution,” a- he declared.
The state budget that Scott enacted this month contains $ 190 million in additional spending on housing, including funds to expand shelter capacity and invest in units for low-income residents.
But DeAngelis said there will be a “lag time” before new affordable housing becomes available – meanwhile, the housing market in Washington County is “very tight.”
Vermont Legal Aid argues that the Scott administration’s stricter rules for the emergency housing program are not “legally valid.” The organization contends that, under Vermont Administrative Procedures Act, the proposed rules should have been filed with the Vermont legislature and the office of the Secretary of State.
The rules must ultimately be approved by the Legislative Committee on Business Rules, and the public is supposed to have an opportunity to comment on proposed changes before they can go into effect, according to Legal Aid.
But the administration maintains that it has the power to change the rule on its own.
A bill that the legislature passed and signed by the governor gave the Social Services Agency more power to change the rules around health care and social services, state officials say.
“As soon as possible”
Geoffrey Pippenger, senior advisor to the commissioner of the Ministry of Children and Families, which manages the emergency housing program, said the administration realizes “that there are resource limitations in terms of permanent housing. Â»For homeless people.
But he said state officials hope they can work with community partners and others to “get as many resources online as possible as quickly as possible.”
The state is working with shelters to increase capacity and it said some who receive housing under the program could continue to live with friends or family, or use their $ 2,500 allowances to continue paying. rooms in hotels and motels.
âThere are a range of different situations that people might be able to find after July 1, hopefully with the help of their case managers,â Pippenger said.
Pippenger also said the number of motel and hotel rooms available for emergency accommodation is declining. Since the spring, the state has lost its ability to rent around 300 rooms – likely because travelers and tourists are returning to the state as the pandemic abates.
âWe’re just not going to have the rooms to use for the scale motel voucher program that we had during the pandemic,â Pippenger said.
Overall, the motel voucher program will continue to serve many more Vermonters than before Covid-19. Before the pandemic, no more than 200 to 300 households would be staying in hotels and motels at any given time.
This number will be higher in the future, as the eligibility for the program will be much wider than before.
Pippenger noted that households comprising people with children, people with disabilities, the elderly or survivors of domestic and sexual violence will still have access to hotel and motel rooms.
“It kind of saves you”
At the Courtyard Marriott in Middlebury, Sarah Trombly, 27, who has lived at the hotel for two months, sat at a laptop next to her 4-year-old daughter, Attalyn. Boxes of colored pencils were laid out on the table. On the side of the room, food, including sandwiches prepared by a local homeless shelter, was available for residents.
Because Trombly has a child and disabilities, including severe memory loss, she and her daughter will not have to leave the hotel on July 1.
But she does not plan to live there for long. Every day, she seeks permanent accommodation. In front of her, on a neat piece of paper, was a list of nearby towns and real estate websites.
For now, as she tries to find a two bedroom apartment that she can afford, she is going to stay at the Marriott.
âIt kind of saves you. It gives you a safe place to live; everyone here is nice, âTrombly said of the emergency housing program.
âIt’s a roof over your head,â she says.
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