Vermont's motel voucher program has been hailed as a success. But can it last?
Vermont's motel voucher program has been touted by some as a success in helping that state's population of unhoused people find shelter, but the future of the program has become more complicated.
As part of our occasional series exploring solutions to homelessness, Irwin Gratz spoke with Carly Berlin, a reporter for Vermont Public and the website VTDigger, about how the program works.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Berlin: This program has been around for a long time. It offers brief stays for people who have lost their housing or have just experienced a catastrophic situation like a fire or a flood. There's some really specific criteria around vulnerable groups — things like if you're pregnant, and specifically in your third trimester, you get 28 days. But what happened during the pandemic is basically the state moved to greatly expand who was eligible for this benefit, with the idea of resheltering and rehousing anyone who needs it. And it was, of course, seen as this public health measure, to allow people privacy and space in their own rooms, to get people who might otherwise be in a crowded shelter in a "noncongregate" shelter situation where they could be safe and hopefully healthy.
Gratz: Where did the money come from?
So historically, the motel program has been funded through state coffers. What happened during the pandemic is we got all of this federal relief money -- that's what allowed the state to really open up access to this program and create this kind of different beast, sheltering way more people. And we're now in this moment where that federal funding ran out, but the state has been extending people's stays who got in under that pandemic-era eligibility. Our homelessness population has grown — the problem is much bigger in scale than it was. So now, we've got thousands of people in hotel rooms, but hundreds of shelter beds. So as we figure out this transition away from this pandemic-era moment, where we said, "Anyone who needs it gets this thing," there's not really a clear path out.
At least to date, has the hotel voucher program been effective at keeping the unhoused population off the streets?
By some accounts, it has been incredibly effective. There's this national analysis that happens of homeless populations by state. For the last couple of years, it has shown that Vermont has some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, but also that we do a better job of any other state keeping people inside. Things are changing now. So last summer, in June, the state evicted hundreds of people from motels. What happened was the legislature decided to essentially split up the people in motels into separate groups, so there's sort of a "less vulnerable" and a "more vulnerable" set of people. They kicked out the "less vulnerable" folks last year. Now we're sort of gearing up to see what will happen to that "more vulnerable" population. So we're talking families with kids, people with disabilities, people who are elderly, people fleeing domestic violence. There's now this sort of political debate happening about what to do with the hundreds of people still in motels who got in under the pandemic-era rules. And then there are still people entering under the current guidelines. It's a whole mess right now.