Gov. Phil Scott has announced a major funding initiative using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, and housing is at the top of the list for the funds.
The four-year, $1 billion spending plan may help get some of the 2,000 homeless people out of emergency housing in hotels and motels including five properties in Manchester.
That topic came up again at Manchester’s Select Board meeting Tuesday when board member Heidi Chamberlain asked about the town’s homeless population.
Chamberlain first brought the Manchester issue up in mid-March.
The board is concerned about rising crime rates, zoning violations, and the human toll of families living in substandard housing offering only a cramped motel room and bathroom with no kitchen facilities.
At its height, Manchester had 120 to 130 people in five different motels, town manager John O’Keefe said, accounting for almost 3 percent of the town’s population.
Housing Commissioner Josh Hanford, who said earlier that the spending plan would immediately allocate $129 million in fiscal year 2022 including $90 million to build permanent housing for the homeless.
“We have 2,000 households in hotels and motels right now at significant expense,” Hanford said in the original release in early April. “But we don’t have housing to move people to. So we need to build this housing now, to move [homeless people] from the situation they’re in into more permanent, safe, stable housing we can afford.”
Hanford didn’t address the Manchester situation directly, but he did say that the program was an emergency reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and there was no easy, or quick solution.
He said the governor’s plan is to use $249 million in ARPA funds to rapidly develop housing options in a variety of ways.
He said the plan is to add 5,000 homes by the end of 2024 including “building new housing where it was needed, rehabilitating distressed and underutilized properties, and in some parts of the state, transitioning the homeless to safe, sustainable housing we can afford.”
“The governor’s proposal addresses this exact issue that a motel is not a place for someone to live for two years,” Hanford said. “If we don’t build the units to transition people to, we’re going to spend the same amount of money just providing nightly shelter. We can’t look back in five years and think that was a success when we should be putting this money towards a permanent roof over someone’s head.”
Hanford said that there is no better time than now to make that happen and address a need the state has faced for decades.
“There’s no better time than to build the housing for folks in need right now,” Hanford said. “We worked hand-in-hand with the Agency of Human Services that is managing this tremendous challenge and know that the communities are experiencing all sorts of challenges with the way this is being dealt with and work closely to invest so much in this critical need in year one.”
The state also recently announced a plan to reduce the number of people eligible for the COVID Emergency Housing Program with an estimated 67 percent of current participants remaining eligible.
In a story first reported by VtDigger on Wednesday afternoon, new requirements would mean that about 700 people currently eligible, would no longer qualify as of July 1.
Those households in the program during April and May would remain eligible through June 30.
Households in emergency housing currently receiving free meal delivery would also lose their food delivery as community meal sites are expected to reopen this summer, although some people will still qualify for food delivery if they lack refrigeration or the ability to heat their meal.
The plan would potentially offer assistance to individuals and families making the transition out of emergency housing to help cover essential needs.
According to the plan, “Many households may have been staying in housing with family or friends but needed to leave due to health and safety restrictions during the pandemic.
As health guidance has changed and Vermont emerges from the state of emergency, we anticipate many of these households may be able to transition back to other safe housing settings with additional financial support.”
The document also recognizes that “many homeless individuals traveled to Vermont during the pandemic. These resources may also help those households to establish themselves more permanently in Vermont or to return to their location of origin.”