In fiscal year 2012, the 59-room Econo Lodge on Shelburne Road collected $184,732 from state coffers in exchange for housing homeless Vermonters with nowhere else to go. The motel was one of the top recipients of state funds for that service, which officials say is a last resort when shelter beds are full.
Now the arrangement appears to be permanent. As VT Digger reported yesterday, the Champlain Housing Trust is converting the former Econo Lodge into an emergency housing facility called Harbor Place. Alicia Freese writes that CHT's plan goes well beyond rebranding the roadside motel:
There’s one key difference between Harbor Place and the state-administered program, according to Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for Champlain Housing Trust: “Under the current system, someone who was accessing the motel voucher program would be put into the Econo Lodge and then they’d wake up in the morning and try to get on with the rest of their life,” Donnelly said. “In this program, there will be services to help them right on site.”
The Econo Lodge overhaul comes after months of debate about how best to house Vermont's homeless population, particularly when shelter beds are full. Spending on motel vouchers spiked dramatically in recent years, reaching $4 million in fiscal year 2013, and lawmakers have been sharply critical of that spending.
In response, the Legislature capped model spending at $1.5 million for FY2014, and the Department of Children and Families constructed a point system — which was subsequently amended — to limit those who received free motel rooms. Harbor Place, Freese reports, is designed to partially fill the void created by the downsizing.
The Econo Lodge overhaul is happening fast. Digger reports that after Monday's $1.85 million sale, CHT plans to reopen Harbor Place within a week. Most of the funding is coming from a Vermont Community Loan Fund loan, and CHT has already signed on at least 10 partners in the effort, including the state and Fletcher Allen Health Care.
It's a deal that state officials can happily endorse. DCF is reserving 30 rooms at the former motel for its voucher program, for which CHT will charge the state just $38 per room a night. DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone estimates the new deal will save the state roughly $250,000 a year.
And he's pleased about more than just the savings. Yacavone told Freese that Harbor Place has the potential to provide much better service for its residents than a motel ever could.
“By bringing the [case] manager in, it makes it look entirely different than just putting someone up in a hotel,” he told Digger. “That’s a really exciting opportunity to provide wraparound services to families in a transitional housing unit.”
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.