WATERBURY >> Use of motels and hotels to house homeless Vermonters on the coldest nights was down last year.
However, data show that more people were seeking shelter because of domestic violence. Department for Children and Families Deputy Commissioner Sean Brown is optimistic that the numbers show the state's efforts to build alternatives to motel vouchers are working.
"We're making the progress we're hoping to make and seeing positive results," Brown said.
Brown pointed to data tracking the number of people who used shelter on nights that qualified for the cold weather exception, a status that expands eligibility for housing services when temperatures drop below 20 degrees or below 32 degrees with rain or snow.
In fiscal 2016, people spent a total of 4,745 nights in motels. That represents a fraction of the total 26,226 motel nights in fiscal 2015. In fiscal 2014, there were 16,542 motel nights.
Brown sees a few factors contributing to the decrease. For one thing, the winter of 2015-16 was far milder than others in recent years. Just 93 nights met the qualifications for the cold weather exception during the season.
In fiscal 2015 there were 133 nights that met the criteria, and the previous year the number was 154.
He also said it reflects a push by the state to build out alternatives to motel vouchers.
Putting people up for nights at a time in motel accommodations is akin to "buying a one-night safety net," Brown said.
Because people using vouchers are scattered at motels throughout a region, it is difficult to connect them with other services they might need — like health care, mental health support or substance abuse treatment, Brown said.
Brown sees the efforts to increase community-based alternatives to motel programs, such as shelters, as positive.
"Not only are we providing a safe place for people to stay, but in many places we're able to provide enhanced services for some of those people and still save money," Brown said.
DCF worked with several communities around the state to build up shelters or other alternatives to the motel system last year, and Brown said many of those were successful.
However, he noted, in Rutland efforts to get a motel alternative in place were unsuccessful. Efforts to build up emergency housing options are ongoing.
Though emergency use of motels was down last year, Brown reported a notable increase in the number of families and individuals seeking housing because of domestic violence.
In fiscal 2016, 534 households, which could represent single people or include children, were awarded housing grants from DCF. The previous year, 412 families got such a grant.
Auburn Watersong, of the Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the increased number of people seeking emergency housing because of domestic violence is "not surprising but very upsetting."
Watersong said one of the driving factors of this trend is the lack of safe and affordable housing options. Because of the shortage, she said, victims stay longer in shelters.
"Victims often make a choice between homelessness or their safety," Watersong said. "That really should never be a choice."
Elizabeth Hewitt is the criminal justice reporter for VTDigger. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.