Brenda Siegel with sign reading "all Vermonters deserve homes"
Policy advocate Brenda Siegel speaks in favor of reinstating the general assistance housing program at a press conference in Montpelier on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott plans to extend the “pause” that is keeping hundreds of Vermonters in the state’s emergency housing program from being potentially booted into the streets.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the state has used federal funding to put up Vermonters experiencing homelessness in vacant motel rooms. As vaccinations ramped up and cases plummeted, about 700 people were pushed out July 1, although the state allowed those with children or qualifying disabilities and those fleeing dangerous situations to remain for at least an additional 84 days. About 900 households were still in the program as of about a month ago, according to Vermont Legal Aid. 

Those 84 days were up for most people in mid-September, at which time those in the program would have had to individually apply for 30-day extensions to stay in the motels based on even more stringent conditions. Days before that deadline, Scott, a Republican, announced a 30-day “pause” which allowed participants to stay in place for another month without applying.

That “pause,” which expires next week, will be extended, Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, confirmed on Thursday. But he said administration officials still must iron out the details with advocates and lawmakers before elaborating on their plans, including how long this next extension would last.

The governor is expected to address the matter Tuesday when he holds his weekly press conference.

“Current participants in the program can be certain that, when our plan is presented next week, a further extension of the pause will be included,” Maulucci wrote in an email to VTDigger.

Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham and House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, were invited to a meeting with state Department for Children and Families Commissioner Sean Brown to discuss the matter on Thursday afternoon. But Conor Kennedy, Krowinski’s chief of staff, reported afterward that lawmakers were given no additional details beyond what had been shared with the media.

“But it was a good start to a conversation on how we will work to find long-term solutions for the most vulnerable,” he said, adding that administration officials had pledged to follow up with more information in the coming days.

The news is welcome — and frustrating — for homeless people and advocacy groups, who have pressed the governor to extend the motel program at least until federal funding runs out. Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars are guaranteed to cover the full cost of the program at least through Dec. 31. Advocates also argue it’s likely the federal government would extend funding even further.

With Vermont now regularly reporting record-high Covid-19 case counts and winter fast approaching, advocates say it would be cruel to push people living in motels out into a housing market with virtually no vacancies. But they also believe the program could serve as a bridge to more long-term solutions.

Brenda Siegel, an anti-poverty activist and former gubernatorial candidate, announced on Thursday she would camp out on the Statehouse steps until the governor “takes action.” Siegel said she wants the state to reinstate everyone already kicked out of the program, and for officials to commit to keeping it in place while federal funds are available. 

She also argued that whatever the governor’s plans were, they needed to be spelled out publicly — and soon. Vermonters facing the prospect of eviction next week need that reassurance now in order to plan ahead.

“Nobody is able to figure out what they’re going to do next when they’re just panicking about what they’re going to do that day. That is just not something that you can do when you’re in the middle of a crisis,” she said.

Josh Lisenby, a former motel program participant now staying in a shelter in Vergennes who is participating in the Statehouse protest, said his stay in the motel was transformational. It allowed him to get a doctor for the first time in decades, finally get glasses and start dealing with prior traumas.

Josh Lisenby
Josh Lisenby, who participated in the state’s general assistance housing program until July, advocated for the full reinstatement of the program at a press conference in Montpelier on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“I had support. I had people who seemed to care, doing things to help me realize some goals. The opportunity to move ahead in life is now open to all Vermonters experiencing homelessness,” he said.

Jessica Radbord, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, said she welcomed the extension of benefits. But she, too, emphasized that participants needed clarity and stability.

“We do hope that, as soon as possible, formal notice will be given to program participants and service providers,” she said. “There’s a lot of anxiety about what’s going to be happening on Oct. 21.”

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(this story/news/article has not been edited by PostX News staff and is published from a syndicated feed)

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