This winter, the state will house homeless Vermonters — regardless of the forecast

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Brenda Siegel, center, joined housing policy advocates and faith leaders for a press conference to raise awareness about changes to the state's housing assistance program on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

For 27 nights, Brenda Siegel and Josh Lisenby slept on the granite steps of the Vermont Statehouse. Their goal was simple: bring the homelessness problem to the doorstep of the state’s leaders and pressure them to fully reinstate a pandemic program that once housed virtually everyone without shelter in motels.

And mostly, it worked. On Wednesday, Siegel and Lisenby declared victory and began packing up their camping gear.

“This was the big ask, and it happened. And we are just practically in tears that we are so relieved,” said Siegel, an anti-poverty activist who has run in Democratic primaries for governor and lieutenant governor.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott has not completely ceded to the demonstrators’ demands, but he has come extraordinarily close.

The Department for Children and Families on Wednesday quietly released an updated “adverse weather conditions” policy, which will allow anyone making less than $24,000 a year to seek shelter in motels from Nov. 22 to March 1, 2022, regardless of the forecast. 

The cold-weather policy, which is often tweaked annually, usually only covers emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness during periods of extreme cold. In 2019, for example, it was only triggered when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees.

The move will make those who were made ineligible for motel rooms when the state began tightening eligibility for the motel program over the summer able to return through March. About 1,500 people are already housed in motels, but a little over 700 were pushed out July 1. 

DCF’s new policy is not everything advocates wanted. For one, it expires March 1. The federal government has promised to pick up the tab for the state’s emergency housing program at least through April 1

Jessica Radbord, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, said the group was pleased the administration would use federal funding to expand emergency housing following pressure from advocates.

“We are concerned, however, that there is no clear plan from the Administration beyond March 2,” she wrote.

And the new regulations say motel residents who break rules could be booted from the program for 30 days at a time. That’s “unnecessarily punitive,” Radbord said. Siegel, too, said she and Lisenby had serious concerns about how unduly harsh those rules might be.

Legislative leaders have come out in recent weeks to endorse Siegel and Lisenby’s demands. But with the legislature not in session, it has fallen on the Scott administration to articulate a concrete response.

The spring timing of the cold weather policy’s expiration — in the middle of the legislative session — guarantees that the next round of debate about how to address Vermonters experiencing homelessness will fall squarely in the laps of lawmakers, and not just the governor.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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