Since October 14, Brenda Siegel and Josh Lisenby have kept constant vigil outside the Vermont Statehouse for a single purpose: to pressure state officials to fully restore the pandemic-era motel voucher program, which provided free rooms for anyone experiencing homelessness between March 2020 and July 2021.
On Wednesday, after their 27th consecutive night on the Statehouse steps, Siegel and Lisenby achieved a momentous, if partial, victory. From November 22 to March 1, 2022, the Department for Children and Families will open motels to anyone in need of shelter who earns less than $24,000 a year.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the state has used federal COVID-19 emergency relief funds to house people in motels. That funding has remained steady over the past year and a half. But this summer, the Agency of Human Services adopted more stringent rules for the voucher program, forcing some 700 people statewide onto the street.
The newly announced guidelines mean that those who were displaced will once again qualify for vouchers. “That was our big ask, and we got it,” said Siegel, a drug policy advocate and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
DCF’s relaxed “adverse weather conditions” policy, which has historically allowed homeless Vermonters to seek refuge in motels when temperatures dip below a certain threshold, comes after weeks of pressure from activists, public health experts and lawmakers. At recent press briefings, Gov. Phil Scott’s chief refrain has been that permanent housing is the only solution to homelessness.
“Not temporary housing. Not rent by each night. It’s permanent housing,” he said at an October 19 press conference, five days after Siegel and Lisenby had taken up residence outside of the capitol building.
In mid-October, Scott extended the voucher program through December 31, but the eligibility criteria still excluded those who had been forced to leave the motels in July, regardless of whether they had secured housing. With winter fast approaching and the state’s affordable housing shortage as dire as ever, Democratic lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) and House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), joined the call to extend vouchers to everyone who had been covered under the program before July 1.
The new policy expires one month before federal funding runs out, which doesn’t sit well with Siegel. “Extending it to April 1 would give us a little more time during the legislative session to find a transitional step, so we’re not exiting people to the streets,” she said.
Jessica Radbord, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, pointed out that the state has the resources to house people well beyond March 1; the supply of affordable housing, she noted, isn’t likely to increase much between now and then. “There’s no rational basis for ending the program in March when we know we’ll still be confronting an historic housing crisis, and we have more than enough funding from FEMA and the American Rescue Plan to keep everyone experiencing homelessness off the streets,” Radbord said.
Siegel also objects to a provision that would bar a household from the voucher program for 30 days for refusing a shelter option. “What if you’re offered a motel room in Burlington, but your kids go to school in Barre, and you don’t want to pull them out?” she said. “Does that mean your punishment should be freezing to death?”
On Thursday, Lisenby was pleased that the state would reopen motels to a larger swath of the unhoused population. But he worried that some of the more cumbersome requirements will prevent people from getting shelter.
“I’ve been homeless for six years, and I had no idea you were supposed to check in with Economic Services the day after getting a motel room,” said Lisenby, referring to one of the rules in the updated policy. “How is somebody who can barely get their phone charged going to know all that stuff?”
Next week, Siegel and Lisenby plan to hash out these sticking points in meetings with Democratic lawmakers and DCF Commissioner Sean Brown. For now, they’re re-acclimating to being indoors. On Wednesday night, Siegel and Lisenby slept in real beds at a motel.
“My hands were burning for hours, like they do when you come in from the cold,” Siegel said. “I just can’t believe how many people live this way. It’s so inhumane.”