MONTPELIER — Brenda Siegel and a coalition of advocates for the homeless are planning to camp out on the statehouse steps until Gov. Phil Scott fully reinstates the general assistance motel program for people experiencing homelessness, as it operated last winter.
A spokesman for Gov. Phil Scott said Thursday that the pause in ending current eligibility, which Scott announced on Sept. 21, will be extended.
“As we’ve been saying, a plan is still being finalized on in part because it is our goal that it is not unilateral,” spokesman Jason Maulucci said. “Administration officials are meeting with legislators and stakeholders this week to try to find consensus.”
But Siegel, of Newfane, a policy advocate and former candidate for lieutenant governor in 2020 and governor in 2018, said the entire program needs to be rolled back so that the approximately 700 people who exited the program in July won’t be in the cold this winter.
“I will be right here on the statehouse steps until the governor takes action,” Siegel said, inviting others who agree to join her there beginning Thursday. “This has gone on long enough.”
Temperatures are expected to dip into the 40s this weekend, but Siegel will have a sleeping bag for accommodations; regulations prohibit tents on the statehouse grounds, she said.
The group is demanding that the expanded eligibility applied during the COVID pandemic, which was set to expire Oct. 21, be extended until the end of the year, and that the state accept federal funds intended for that purpose.
The advocates are asking that persons who lost program eligibility over the summer have it restored, that an 84-day limit they described as “arbitrary” be scrapped, and that the practice of offering participants $2,500 to leave the program — which Siegel characterized as “a bribe” — also make clear that participants have the right to decline the funds and retain their eligibility.
Siegel and other speakers said the state has the money — from federal sources and the Legislature — to pay for the program, as well as a moral obligation to do so, and questioned whether Scott, who has long said his role is to “protect the most vulnerable,” was living up to that pledge through the current policy.
Furthermore, the shortage of rental housing means that permanent homes likely won’t available to homeless Vermonters who will have nowhere else to go but the streets, or the woods, advocates said.
Maulucci noted that the current plan, before the pause, resulted from “discussions and agreement with the legislature and stakeholders earlier this year.”
“These discussions are in part contemplating the length of the pause, as more sustainable and long-term solutions are realized,” he said. “But, 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.”
Addie Lentzner of Bennington, an Arlington Memorial High School student who has been advocating for resumption of the program, said she will be joining Siegel, Josh Lisenby of Vergennes, and others on the statehouse steps Friday. “We’re hoping to make that a second day of getting the word out,” she said.
She agrees that a pause is insufficient, and that more needs to be done, now, to assure that Vermonters aren’t left out in the cold.
“Extending the pause doesn’t help the 700 people who were exited from the program in July,” she said. “Unless we have a full reinstatement, it’s not nearly enough of what we need. Otherwise we’ll still have people sleeping outside this winter. We need more than another extension.”
Lisenby, who was exited from the program in July, said the stability he got from having an address meant he was able to see a doctor, get the eyeglasses he needed and seek treatment for post-traumatic stress. “I felt respected as a human being,” he said.
“It’s absolutely inhumane to ask anyone to sleep in the woods or on the street in the summer,” Lisenby said. “That’s multiplied by 1,000 in the winter.”
“Along with Brenda and anyone else ... I will stay here until the governor takes action,” he said. “This is not some fun thing to do.”
Lentzner was unable to be in Montpelier on Thursday, but submitted comments that were read aloud by Ken Russell, chairman of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Committee. Lentzner said her letter was signed by 80 other youth who believe, as she does, that “everyone in our state deserves a home.”
In her statement, Lentzner noted that she called motel owners to gauge their interest in continuing the program, and found that 60 of 62 she spoke with were in favor of taking part. She also noted that in her hometown of Bennington, there are 16 shelter beds available, meaning “only a fraction [of area motel program participants] will be able to get a place in a shelter. Many will sleep outside.”
Speakers also said the deadlines and pauses only lead to uncertainty for participants.
“Our neighbors are right now, as we speak, in crisis. They don’t know if in less than a week they will no longer have shelter,” Siegel said.