As the state ended its hotel accommodation program, a hotel in Colchester offered to close its facility to public reservations so it could continue to accommodate homeless Vermonters.
Melissa Driscoll, general manager of Colchester Days Inn, said the suggestion was not for profit. The hotel makes a significantly higher reservation rate for travelers than voucher program guests, and rooms are selling out quickly in a re-emerging travel season after lockdown.
But Driscoll has gotten to know many guests who have received housing assistance there over the past year and is heartbroken to see some return to homelessness this summer. She has often taken on a role similar to that of a case manager, coordinating with state agencies to help clients get an extension or find another place to go.
âI don’t think I could sleep at night if I didn’t try,â she said.
To Driscoll’s surprise, the state declined its offer. In May, Robyn Stattel, director of operations in the Department of Children and Families, told him those rooms would not be needed as they have phased out the program, according to a May 18 email Driscoll shared with VtDigger.
DCF faces several variables to extend hotel accommodation for some people through the summer: amid concerns from municipal governments that the hotel program was emphasizing the resources of first responders, DCF and several municipalities have agreed to cap the number of Vermont homeless people placed in certain hotels.
Tricia Tyo, deputy commissioner for economics in the department, said caps, like Colchester’s, limit the state’s options.
âWe don’t lose hotel rooms just because tourists come back,â Tyo said. “We are losing hotel rooms because we have had to put a cap in certain places.”
In response to questions about the Days Inn, she said the department has not and will not ask people already living in Colchester hotels – or any other hotel in the state – to relocate elsewhere. They agreed not to place additional people in Colchester.
Administrators from the Department of Children and Families and city governments have negotiated similar arrangements to limit the number of Vermont homeless people housed in several cities, including Colchester, Manchester, Rutland, Berlin and Barre.
And as the state emerges from pandemic restrictions, some hotels are juggling increased tourist demand and reserving rooms for Vermonters who have nowhere to go.
Local Colchester officials say accommodating people in hotels has strained police and firefighters’ resources.
“It’s not a vacuum,” Colchester Police Chief Douglas Allen said. âPlacing these people in hotels has had concrete consequences for the communities where they are placed. “
For Driscoll, the decision did not hold water. The rooms that guests stay in are in good condition and guests are “not out of control,” she said.
The number of people accommodated in hotels is decreasing. But even though most of the program ended in late June, the state was still housing people in 932 hotel rooms across the state on the night of July 6, including 281 in Chittenden County.
Hundreds of people are entitled to extended assistance because of a disability or other circumstance or are in a legal limbo while waiting to see if they are eligible.
This uncertainty makes doing business difficult at hotels like the Days Inn, which reopens to the public while participating in the voucher program. When the hotel expected the program to end, they booked rooms online.
When these travelers show up on weekends, voucher program participants are sometimes forced to find another place to go.
Tyo said the state moved people from three hotels in White River Junction to other hotels in surrounding areas on the mid-June Dartmouth College graduation weekend due to rates of high occupancy.
Several hotels stopped participating in the emergency accommodation program at the end of June in order to be able to resume normal activity. This, combined with the city’s capacity limits, sometimes hampers the options of the Ministry of Children and Families when placing those who still qualify for housing or are awaiting approval for an extension.
Nicole Tousignant, senior director of policy and operations at DCF, said demand is highest around Greater Burlington.
âIn general, the Burlington area has experienced capacity issues throughout the pandemic,â Tousignant said. âAt this point, we haven’t had to turn anyone away in Burlington specifically for lack of capacity, but the rooms are very tight in that area. “
Allen, the Colchester Police Chief, said he and Aaron Frank, the city manager, contacted their state officials in March with their concerns and some data on the local impact of the hotel program.
Allen said that between March 1, 2020 and March 1, 2021, police responded to 623 calls from the two Colchester hotels in the program. They had only made 119 calls to these locations the previous year.
They also answered 160 EMS calls to hotels, up from 20 the previous year.
The state offered to fund an additional police officer for the city, but Allen said that wouldn’t work because it takes around 12 to 18 months to hire a new officer.
According to Allen and others who coordinated with the DCF, the state then offered to fund police overtime. But Allen said Colchester just didn’t have enough officers to do it, regardless of the pay.
State Representative Sarah “Sarita” Austin, who helped strike a deal between DCF and Colchester, said the hotel’s ceiling was designed as a safety measure, especially to protect those participating in the program. hotelier.
âThe community didn’t plan it, didn’t fund it, and there were just additional resources that were needed,â she said. âIt’s a mismatch between resources, capacity and needs. “
Driscoll at the Days Inn doesn’t see it that way. She said the city shouldn’t have meddled in her hotel arrangement with the state.
âThey can’t tell private venues that they can’t have guests because that’s basically what they’re doing,â Driscoll said. âThey discriminate against my homeless guests. “
But DCF’s Tyo said the agency was doing its best to balance competing interests.
âEveryone has their own interest in this, don’t they? I heard from the Colchester lawmakers via email, I heard from the CEO, we spoke to the police department, âTyo said. âI’ve heard from motel owners, I’ve heard from St. Mike’s College, and I’ve also heard from the people we serve. So trying to balance all of that in a responsible way is really what led to the âOK, we need to limit thisâ decision. “”