Upcoming changes to the hotel program, according to the DCF | New

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There was little real consensus and some expressed frustration at the end of a meeting that went over two hours on Wednesday as residents met with local officials and Sean Brown, commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) to discuss the effects of the presence of homeless people in what had been used as a hotel. The meeting took place at Rutland Middle School.

Brown said some of the lax policies that had been put in place due to the pandemic will end in about two weeks, and promised services would continue for people who don’t have stable housing. Questions remained about how long this operation would last and what support could be provided to local police responding to an increased number of calls to the Cortina Inn, formerly the Holiday Inn.

David Wolk, former president of Castleton University and superintendent of Rutland Schools, who served as moderator on Wednesday, asked if there was anyone in the crowd of about 150 who represented hotel property, but no one answered.

Many of those who attended and spoke identified themselves as hotel residents or members of a life-saving response team hired to handle the situation, but others said they were nearby residents. who had been victims of crime or vandalism.

Brown told the audience he was there “in the spirit of collaboration and finding solutions.”

He explained that general assistance emergency housing has existed in Vermont for decades, but with more restrictive eligibility and state funding. Before the pandemic, the annual budget was $6 million and 150 to 300 households or individuals could be offered housing during an event such as an intense cold snap.

After Governor Phil Scott declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19, state leaders decided that due to the risk of viral transmission in a communal setting, restrictions would be lifted.

Brown said the situation was exacerbated by the lack of available and affordable housing.

With the changes resulting from the pandemic, more than 500 households or individuals are served. At its peak, the system provided shelter for approximately 2,100 households.

“We quickly realized this was putting a strain on communities, especially communities that had a large number of hotels participating in the program, and so we began working to increase the services available in the program,” Brown said. .

He said DCF staff were working with security companies, designated mental health agencies and food providers, who had been contracted to reduce the need for hotel residents to leave their rooms and risk spread COVID.

However, Brown added, those efforts were funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the funding expires at the end of June.

When the vaccines became available, around the time of the 2021 legislative session, the Vermont legislature ordered the DCF to begin scaling back the less restrictive homeless protection program. The transition was halted when the omicron and delta variants of COVID spread, but by July 1, the state is expected to return to pre-pandemic housing assistance levels.

Brown said that means rules that had been more lax during the pandemic due to concerns about Vermonters potentially carrying COVID and unable to self-isolate will be back in effect. He said people who receive hotel accommodation but break the rules will be asked to leave and could be banned from returning for 30 days. DCF staff may be able to help a resident find another room at another hotel.

The return to pre-pandemic conditions will also be temporary, Brown said, as the state moves toward a transition program supported by federal funds.

With $350 million awarded in Vermont, DCF will make it easier for a family and hotel to develop occupancy agreements and apply for funding to pay monthly room rent.

But Brown noted that Vermont has an ongoing housing crisis. He said DCF staff had found permanent housing for about 1,800 families since the start of the pandemic, but the lack of affordable housing and other factors had added new families to the homeless population with about 1 635 families considered homeless in Vermont on Wednesday.

In Rutland, there are about 325 households, about 400 adults and more than 110 children, Brown added.

“It’s a staggering statistic that there are 114 homeless children living in hotels. None of us think that’s an ideal situation, but at this point it’s a roof over their heads, and it allows them to have a place to call home. It’s not a great place to call home. It’s not permanent housing,” he said.

Brown said Vermont has spent nearly $10 million in the Rutland area to provide services beyond the money provided for rent.

Many questions were posed to the panel members, which included Rutland Mayor David Allaire; Rutland City Police Commander. Greg Sheldon; Don Chioffi, chairman of the board of Rutland Town; and Rutland City Police Chief Ed Dumas.

A woman who identified herself as Wanda and said she lived in one of the hotels said she was there because she was getting $800 a month from Social Security and couldn’t afford housing different.

“Where are the low-income apartments,” she asked to a round of applause. “I can’t afford to pay $1,000 for a room or $1,000 for a studio. You can’t do it with my income.

Dick Courcelle, CEO of the Community Care Network and Rutland Mental Health, told Brown “it’s not in my nature to call out officials in public,” but said Vermont does not provide funding to his agency. to deal with mental health needs that he said were “coming from the hotel.”

“Further, let me reiterate that the State of Vermont has unfortunately for decades inadequately funded the community mental health (and) treatment system for substance use disorders in this State and because he did it, we see the result. We are unable to respond. We get a very small amount of money that every year we have to beg… The fact is that we have been capped, the whole designated agency system has been capped with funding for four to five years,” a- he declared. .

Courcelle said his staff “can’t keep up” with the need.

Life Response Team founder Karim Chapman said his organization is in hotels to support people through crises involving mental health, addiction and other issues.

“We ask the community to always help us. Stop pointing fingers and pointing out things that are wrong and be part of the solution,” he said.

Chapman asked the members of LIT to stand, and many onlookers responded. He said many had “lived experience” or had been homeless at some point in their own lives.

“Can you please help us? Please help us. We need support, not pointing fingers,” he said.

Brown pointed out that the federal funding that will support Vermont’s shift from temporary housing to transitional housing is itself temporary and transitional. It will expire on July 1, 2023.

“At this stage there is no concrete plan of what will happen next. This is the work that is going to happen in this next legislative session. Some decisions will have to be made,” he said.

One of the questions that will need to be answered is whether the state will be able, without federal funding, to support a homeless population of 1,600 families, the number that is currently served.

patrick.mcardle @rutlandherald.com

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