Passed during June’s veto session, Act 81 is the law that codified Vermont’s transition plan for the last beneficiaries of its pandemic-era General Assistance Emergency Housing program. When the House Human Services and Senate Health and Welfare committees met for an update on its implementation this fall, their list of witnesses included, among the usual state officials and nonprofit executives, a pair of unconventional experts: people with lived experience of homelessness.
Rebecca Duprey – an abuse survivor who, like many homeless Vermonters, received a voucher to stay in a motel during COVID-19 – made a name for herself as an advocate in Montpelier last spring as the state prepared to evict her from the Hilltop Inn in Berlin. But Oct. 5 marked her first invited appearance before the legislature.
Bryan Plant, a formerly homeless resident of Bristol, joined her. While the service providers tasked with helping the state find permanent housing for Vermont’s remaining motel dwellers before April outlined a litany of roadblocks in their testimonies, Plant’s story revealed the human consequences of those same problems.
Both Duprey and Plant have found stable housing, but it didn’t come easily. Duprey credited two individual legislators, Sen. Ann Cummings and Rep. Anne Donahue, for introducing her to the activist Brenda Siegel, who helped Duprey access the motel program last winter and later vouched for her when she submitted a rental application to a landlord who happened to know Siegel’s father.
“I didn’t find housing because [the Agency of Human Services] did something. In fact, AHS has been nowhere – not a single contact my entire time I was in the hotels,” Duprey said. “I applied for housing, sometimes 15 apartments in just one week. I was always put to the bottom of the list, not accepted or even looked at the second they found out I was homeless.”
Duprey has stayed in touch with some of the homeless Vermonters who remain in the motels. For them, Act 81 created new eligibility rules, which have led to evictions. Duprey put some of the blame on the Department for Children and Families and its Economic Services Division.
“People that should be in the cohort up until April of 2024 are being kicked out at fast speeds and for reasons that are of no fault of their own, but rather the state’s,” Duprey said. “ESD offices are not clear on the rules, and they discourage folks from reaching out for help from other providers or are simply turning them away from the offices during office hours.”
Plant spent nearly a year in a shelter, followed by two years in transitional housing, during which he struggled to secure social services, disability benefits, a cell phone, and a Section 8 voucher. His testimony detailed an odyssey through mazes of bureaucracy.
“Every few months, it seemed like some agency or another needed paperwork filled out. Someone actually needs to read through the questions, because many are often unclear, especially when a person is worried that one wrong answer can get them dropped from a program,” Plant said.
Packets would arrive at Plant’s doorstep with what he called “unrealistic turnaround request times.” In a panic, over the course of “roughly 24 to 48 hours,” he would collect the necessary information and send the documents back to an agency that would itself take weeks or months to process his response.
Service coordinators can help clients with tasks of this kind, but by Plant’s account, they tend to have spotty availability and sometimes disappear altogether. “I’m now on number 11 in three years,” he said.
Plant pointed out that homeless people may face challenges related to mental health or substance use that can make long, duplicative applications for assistance especially difficult to fill out – not to mention follow-up phone calls and recertifications.
“Why are people who are experiencing this always held to a higher standard than providers, state agencies, and others?” he asked. “They can miss deadlines; we cannot. They can lose paperwork; we cannot.”
For Plant, winning a Section 8 voucher wasn’t the end of his perilous journey. Within six months, he still had to find somewhere to use it in an extremely tight rental market.
When he couldn’t, the Vermont State Housing Authority denied repeated requests for an extension. Fortunately, administrators reversed the denial upon Plant’s appeal, and he ultimately found a unit in a newly constructed apartment building.
Plant’s and Duprey’s testimony constituted a small portion of a joint committee meeting that lasted nearly five hours, excluding a lunch break in the middle. In total, 14 witnesses appeared.
Angus Chaney, the executive director of Rutland’s Homeless Prevention Center, criticized “new construction initiatives” that, though intended to help the homeless, “use tenant selection criteria so stringent they will effectively screen out the people they would seek to house.”
According to Allison Caldera from Capstone Community Action, the state sometimes doesn’t share enough information about the motel residents for case managers to help them effectively. She highlighted the importance of medical details in particular.
“Our staff have sometimes discovered residents in unsafe situations because they are so ill, and I really am sad to say that our staff have found people who passed away in motels,” Caldera said.
In her view, clients with serious medical needs should be shifted to “medical respite beds,” but Vermont has few available. Caldera cited “a robust medical respite program, designed in concert with local medical facilities,” as a major need.
Brenda Siegel, the executive director of End Homelessness Vermont, contended that Act 81 violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“People with disabilities, dementia, and medical vulnerability are essentially left to fend for themselves,” Siegel said. “They are not offered reasonable accommodations, or when their disability gets in the way of their renewal, search for housing, or more, they are penalized or kicked out.”
Kara Casey, the board president of the Housing and Homelessness Alliance of Vermont, warned that many motel residents “will not have alternative housing solutions by the April 1, 2024, target identified in Act 81. We would like to see a more long-term, proactive plan in place moving forward.”
Representing the Department for Children and Families’ Economic Services Division, Deputy Commissioner Miranda Gray shared statistics. By AHS’s count, the fiscal year began on July 1 with 1,283 households living in motels under Act 81.
As of October, 874 remained. The state had found “minimal success” in renegotiating rates with motel owners, as Act 81 had ordered, paying $133 per night on average for each room.
Of the 409 beneficiaries that had exited the program, 126, to AHS’s knowledge, had found permanent housing. A plurality (191) had left without notice. The state had kicked out 49 households for misconduct.
Ginny Lyons, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, hinted at legislative action in the 2024 session.
“This is just the beginning, of course. Our goal was to understand what’s happening in Act 81, and we hear that we still have lightyears to go,” Sen. Lyons said. “I hope that we’ll meet relatively early in the session to work and hear from our national experts and perhaps move forward collaboratively on a bill.”
Theresa Wood, who chairs the House Committee on Human Services, agreed.
“We do have intentions of modernizing what’s currently known as the General Assistance program. It’s going to be a heavy lift,” Rep. Wood said. “And one of the things that we are very intent upon is hearing and building upon people’s lived experiences and how we respond to those as state government, because that’s what we’re supposed to do.”