New rules set to go into effect on July 15 will dramatically slash the number of homeless Vermonters receiving state benefits to stay in motels, a practice that came under fire from lawmakers this winter after emergency assistance spending on motel stays spending skyrocketed to $2.2 million fiscal year 2012 and roughly $4 million in 2013.
The legislature cut its funding for that program to $1.5 million in this year's appropriations bill — and officials at the Vermont Agency of Human Services say the new eligibility rules will keep that spending in check. But advocates for the homeless are raising the alarm that the new rules are too strict, and will leave vulnerable Vermonters without any place to turn if homeless shelters are full.
Chopping motel benefits before other relief programs are in place is like "pulling away the life raft before people know how to swim," says Rita Markley, who directs the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) in Burlington.
The new rules hinge on a points system. AHS identifies 11 categories of vulnerable individuals, such as people over 65 years of age or pregnant women in their third trimester, and assigns varying points to each category. To qualify for a motel room when shelters are full, an individual must earn at least six points on this scale. (See the new points scale here, as outlined in a memo from Deputy Commissioner Richard Giddings of the Department for Children and Families.)
"You just have to read this and start doing the math," says Markley. Very few people, she contends, will reach six points on the new scale. For instance, a 19-year-old who aged out of the state's foster system, with an ongoing medical need, wouldn't be eligible for a motel stay. Neither would a Reach Up recipient with a child under 6 years of age.
"We do appreciate the fact that a significant number of people who were eligible in the past won’t be eligible, but we will protect the most vulnerable Vermonters," says AHS general counsel Ken Schatz.
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The new system were unveiled to the Vermont Council on Homelessness yesterday, and Markley says she and other advocates for the homeless were "stunned" by the rules, which were presented in the last 15 minutes of a two-hour meeting. The rules were drafted under a provision of the Vermont Administrative Procedures Act that allows for an expedited emergency rule-making process. Schatz says the emergency rules will be in effect for no more than 120 days, and that the agency will be undertaking the full rule-making process — which includes time for public comment — starting in a few weeks.
Rachel Batterson, the project manager of the Housing Discrimination Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid, says Legal Aid is considering asking for an injunction against the rules on the basis that the emergency rule-making process may not have been warranted in this case.
In the meantime, no one is sure how many homeless Vermonters currently housed in motels will lose their benefits on July 15. Giddings says that his department is billed for motel stays after the fact, and doesn't know on a day-by-day basis how many people are living in motels. But in a review of motel stays between January and May of this year, Giddings' staff calculated that more than 50 percent of the people approved for motel benefits would no longer qualify under the new system.
Vermonters currently receiving the benefit will need to turn up at local offices of DCF's Economic Services Division on Monday to reapply for assistance. The old eligibility rules will stay in effect until July 15, and state workers will walk recipients through the changes coming down the pike.
The new rules do preserve benefits in two special categories. One is the cold-weather exemption, which guarantees homeless Vermonters a motel room if shelters are full during the harshest parts of the winter. The other allows for benefits under "catastrophic" circumstances when a person loses his or her housing for reasons beyond their control, such as a flood or fire.
While Markley is sympathetic to the need to cut motel spending, she's worried the new rules take those cuts too far, too fast.
"Nobody thinks that spending millions of dollars on motels is a good idea," she says. "And there were some people abusing it last year. But there was also a good portion of very vulnerable people who were not abusing it, who there wasn't room for in shelters."
Markley reports that both the COTS day station and the family shelter are full right now — and the family shelter, which can house 15 families at a time, has a waiting list 27 people deep.
Asked to speculate about what will happen when the new rules go into effect, Markley paused for a long moment.
"What will happen?" she says. "People will be lined up at shelters that can't serve them, because they're full." The one silver lining: "At least it’s in the summer. They won’t freeze."
Kathryn Flagg is a Seven Days staff writer. She completed a fellowship in environmental journalism at Middlebury College, and her work has also appeared in the Addison County Independent, Wyoming Public Radio and Orion Magazine. She lives in Shoreham with her husband and son.