MONTPELIER — About 2,295 people are living in 1,631 hotel and motel rooms around Vermont as part of the state’s response to housing insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the number will continue to drop as changes have been made to the General Assistance Housing Program.
“We are starting to lose capacity every day in the hotels and motels in terms of rooms as the state begins to reopen,” Mike Smith, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Services, said at the governor’s Tuesday news conference. “This program had restrictive criteria for eligibility in place before the pandemic. We recognized the need to protect the most vulnerable and we suspended all eligibility criteria during the pandemic.”
Starting on June 1, new criteria was implemented. Smith called it “more expansive” than it had been before the pandemic, especially as it pertains to households with children, those with disabilities and older Vermonters.
“And we are still serving households at risk of domestic violence or other life-threatening conditions, households including a pregnant person and victims of natural disasters such as fire and flood,” he said.
Smith anticipates about two-thirds of households in the program will continue to be eligible for the program 84 days after June 1. For the transition, he said his agency worked with several community organizations and coalitions including Groundworks Collaborative in Brattleboro.
“Our plan for transitioning away from the motel voucher program has specific phases that were intended to avoid a cliff and therefore we have phased in new eligibility for new households first and will subsequently apply those criteria to currently housed households beginning in July,” he said.
Households may be eligible for payments of $2,500 to help with expenses related to their basic needs, Smith said. They may qualify for Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance to help with security deposits, rent for up to 12 months and utility bills, he said.
Smith also noted financial assistance of up to $8,000 could be available for security deposits, moving costs, transportation and program fees for those transitioning out of motels and hotels as part of the the Rapid Resolution Housing Initiative the state put in place.
In a news release issued Thursday, Groundworks said it is finalizing details to open the newly constructed Drop-In Center on South Main Street on July 1, which is when some people currently in the motel program will no longer qualify.
“The eligibility requirements had been largely suspended throughout the pandemic, which allowed for a temporary interruption of all homelessness in Vermont,” the group said. “The state has been spending the equivalent of the typical annual program budget each month throughout the pandemic — roughly $5 million per month largely paid for through FEMA disaster relief funds — to shelter Vermonters experiencing homelessness in motels.”
Groundworks said it estimates that the change will mean about 20 percent of current participants will no longer qualify in July 1 and a much larger group will leave the motels in late September.
The Drop-In Center will be “flexible space that can serve as both daytime and overnight shelter for people experiencing homelessness,” according to the news release. The facility includes showers, laundry machines, lockers, spaces to meet with case managers, phone, mail, internet access and a stocked kitchen to prepare meals.
When a 24-hour shelter space opens in the facility in September, 34 beds will be available. Groundworks said it has been purchasing and collecting donated tents, tarps and sleeping bags for those who will have no option but to camp.
On Sunday, the state reported 80 percent of eligible Vermonters were vaccinated against COVID-19 with at least one dose and the number now stands at 80.3 percent.
“We are the first in the nation to achieve this milestone,” Smith said. “This is remarkable but we’re not stopping now.”
When Vermont hit that benchmark, as promised, Gov. Phil Scott lifted remaining COVID-19 restrictions.
Vermont’s state of emergency ended at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. Extending it “longer than it’s needed is not appropriate,” Scott said.
“We want to make sure that when lifting this order, people who have relied on some of the programs and services are not left behind,” he said. “I asked my general counsel, Jaye Johnson, to work with agencies and departments on programs that will still be needed.”
Scott said he will sign an executive order to allow the National Guard to continue to help including with vaccination clinics, to extend the state’s status for federal funding for housing and food programs, and to keep allowing restaurants and bars to serve to-go drinks, which he called “an important revenue stream” for businesses during the pandemic.
Smith said about 45,000 children in the 5-11 age group will become eligible for vaccinations in the fall.
“We have begun planning for that,” he said.
He noted vaccination clinic sites on Saturday include Outer Limits Health Club in Brattleboro and Southwestern Medical Center ExpressCare in Bennington.
Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said Vermont remains the safest state in the country and the only one to not report a COVID-19 death last week. Last week, Vermont recorded 48 new COVID-19 cases, which he described as a 97 percent reduction since the peak on April 1.
“We are seeing cases fall consistently among all age groups,” he said.