Vermont Policy Makers, State Agencies and Advocates Collaborate to End Homelessness in the State During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Vermont housing advocates, shelter and service providers, administration officials, statewide housing agency staff, and policy makers worked together to prevent the deaths of unhoused Vermonters during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Housing providers temporarily ended homelessness by placing 2,000 previously unhoused and housing-insecure individuals into motels and other places that allowed people to stay safe. Members of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, a NLIHC state partner, acted quickly to secure safe housing options for unhoused individuals and to persuade the legislature to fund an $85 million comprehensive housing initiative using Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) to serve the most vulnerable populations in the state.

According to Vermont’s 2020 Point in Time Count, 1,110 individuals experienced homelessness on any given night in Vermont before COVID-19. In response to the pandemic, state officials loosened requirements of a program that provides motel or hotel stays, essentially allowing all unhoused individuals access to a motel room. Congregate shelter staff directed unhoused individuals to these alternatives. In addition, Champlain Housing Trust operated a hotel that provided a place for individuals with COVID-19 symptoms to self-isolate. This quick response was instrumental in minimizing the effects of COVID-19 throughout Vermont communities, and doubtlessly saved lives while also providing safe housing for every known person experiencing homelessness throughout the state.

Housing advocates also lobbied state lawmakers for $106.5 million in CRF to be used for affordable housing. Chris Donnelly, director of community relations at Champlain Housing Trust, and other advocates testified before legislative committee meetings, where they laid out the plan for the $106.5 million. Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition coordinator (and NLIHC board member) Erhard Mahnke provided testimony and coordinated two sign-on letters to the governor, the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate to keep previously unsheltered individuals permanently housed. In addition, the Coalition was instrumental in publishing op-eds urging the legislature to fix a broken system, prevent future outbreaks of COVID-19, and build a bridge from the use of temporary motels to permanent housing options. State housing agencies and funders coordinated proposals to use CRF to transition households to permanent housing and prevent future homelessness due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.

The $85 million in CRF for housing was allocated in two parts. S.350 allocated $23 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to purchase and restore affordable housing units and improve congregate shelters to meet social distancing requirements. Policy makers passed H.966 on June 26, which allocated the remaining $62 million for several housing initiatives. The funds will be used for foreclosure and eviction protection, a back-rent program, legal assistance for tenants, landlord counseling and assistance, renovation of apartments for individuals transitioning out of homelessness, a second allocation of capital for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to upgrade congregate shelters, and supportive services for families transitioning out of homelessness.

“H.966 and S.350 represent the ‘next right thing’ to do: prevent evictions, create new housing, provide rental assistance, and provide the supports needed to help these folks make the transition from homeless to housed,” said Vermont Representative Tom Stevens, chair of the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. “Years of advocacy finally paid off, and the humanitarian nature of getting Vermonters housed has been accepted as the norm. Now, getting them a home to be safe in when the next ‘Safe at Home’ order is issued is a race against the clock.”

“Great advances have been made—both short and long term—in addressing homelessness in Vermont,” said Vermont Senator Michael Sirotkin, chair of the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee. “The hope we have is that we have come as close as possible to actually ending homelessness in our state. It took the close collaboration of the legislature and the executive branch to get this done. Special thanks need to go to Commissioner Ken Schatz, who retired last week after years at the helm of Vermont’s Department of Children and Families. Without his laser focus on wrap around services for the homeless, our amazing progress this year and going forward would have been impossible to achieve.”  

“Collaborative efforts throughout the state have minimized the effects of the pandemic while also laying the groundwork for long-term housing security throughout the state,” said the Vermont Coalition’s Erhard Mahnke. “This is a great example of what state government can accomplish when working with partners to provide for its most vulnerable citizens.”