During the pandemic months, the GA (general assistance) Motel Program ensured every Vermonter in need of shelter got a hotel or motel room at no cost, providing stability and safety to the most vulnerable Vermonters during a crisis.
However, in July, the motel program transitioned and hundreds of people were kicked out. Hundreds of people were literally handed a tent to sleep on the streets. According to one motel owner, “a lot of people are (now) living in campgrounds with their kids.”
The motel program was supposed to be a bridge to ending homelessness. Instead, people are again sleeping under bridges. Almost two years ago, a man experiencing homelessness in my hometown named Thierry Heuga died from exposure while sleeping outside under a bridge. When the GA Motel Program came along, I envisioned it as a solution to ensure that happened to nobody else. I’m losing hope.
On Sept. 23, the program was slated by the governor to end for 500 more Vermonters, including children. Because of constant pressure from an array of advocates and state leaders, there has been a 30-day extension. The advocacy came largely from people with lived experience, who truly show dedication when they advocate to end homelessness while experiencing homelessness. One voice for change is Josh Lisenby, a lived-experience expert from Middlebury who spearheaded this letter to the governor. With the GA Program, “it felt like for once someone was actually doing something, instead of just saying something” says Josh, who was in the GA motel program until July 1.
Now, are we back to just saying we care without acting? Because, for people who now have 30 more days under a roof, this is only a brief moment to breathe. Danger is still looming.
The governor’s narrative is motels do not support the program, nor do they have the capacity. This is simply not true. Across the state, motel owners overwhelmingly support continuing the motel program. Out of the 62 motels we called across the state, all except two support the program continuing into the future and would house people experiencing homelessness during tourist season. Capacity issues and unwillingness to participate by motel owners are myths.
Another narrative is motels and hotels are unsustainable solutions. One motel owner said “the ideal situation isn’t living in a one-room motel room but is a great short-term solution. We feel very proud and happy to have people stay with us. We wanted to create a home for people who didn’t have it.”
Where else will people go without the motels? The governor stated he wanted to take these 30 days to find permanent housing; we cannot find enough permanent housing in 30 days. We must extend the GA Motel Program, find and fund housing and transition people from one to the other without putting people into homelessness. In this way, the program is the only sustainable solution.
Third, according to a budget bill passed last session by the Legislature, this is the exact time when continuing the GA Program is called for. According to the bill, the program can be altered when there is a “public health emergency.” Right now, we have three emergencies: COVID, the overdose crisis and the housing crisis. Denying the fact we are in an emergency just exacerbates the crisis. We are in an emergency, so it is time to continue the GA Motel Program.
So this is all great, you might be thinking; but won’t it carry a huge financial burden?
A month ago, President Biden announced FEMA funding to continue the motel program due to the delta surge, meaning the GA Motel Program could continue using federal money at no cost to Vermont.
There is no excuse not to continue the GA Motel Program indefinitely using federal funds until everyone can be safely and consistently housed. Gov. Scott, you have the power. These were the demands laid out in the letter by people experiencing homelessness:
1. Accept the federal money being offered to the state.
2. Reinstate the GA Motel Program through December.
3. Commit to keeping people safely and consistently housed, no excuses, when the time comes to transition out.
Gov. Scott: If you truly support vulnerable Vermonters, you will listen to their voices.
Addie Lentzner lives in Bennington.