They could have really helped the homeless
By Tom Evslin
At the beginning of the pandemic Vermont used federal COVID funding to vastly expand a program providing emergency shelter in motels. Made sense since fear and lockdowns led to an unemployment spike and the motels had no guests. The program now supports about 1800 families and doesn’t have room for all who are eligible under current rules.
Motels, who have traveling guests again, have been withdrawing from the program despite extremely generous reimbursement rules because of damage to rooms and the difficulty of housing at least some of the homeless. The pandemic is over. Unemployment is near an all-time low. The federal funding ends March 31. There have been repeated warnings to recipients that support for some of them is ending and help has been available to find other housing.
Over Governor Scott’s objection, the legislature appropriated 21 million state dollars to keep the full program alive until May 31st when eligibility will be restricted to those most in need including, according to VTDigger, “people fleeing domestic violence, families with children, those aged 60 and over, pregnant people, people with disabilities, and certain households that recently lost their housing.” Ironically, since there are not currently enough rooms for all, some of those in the most needy category won’t be able to get shelter until the less needy move out at the end of May.
The $21 million is being wasted. Although it postpones the day when the less needy need to find alternatives, it does nothing to address Vermont’s long-term housing problems nor does it address the drug and mental health crises which, pandemic and housing shortage aside, have increased the number of people requiring some kind of shelter. It’s always difficult to end an emergency aid program because of those who quickly become dependent on it even after the emergency is over. A helping hand quickly becomes an indispensable crutch. But we can’t afford emergency programs if we can’t end them once the emergency is over.
“Advocates” say that Vermont has the highest homeless rate in the nation and that there are more people seeking emergency housing now than before the pandemic. However, you can’t judge demand for something by the amount of it you can give away. Vermont also has among the lowest number of people living without shelter (good thing in our climate). The more free rooms are available, the more people will want to move into them even if they have other alternatives. Anecdotally, people have moved to Vermont because these rooms are available.
There are two parts to our housing problem: lack of supply partly because of restrictions on “land use” (aka development including building houses) and drug and mental health problems, which leave some people unable to live on their own even if there is space available for them. It’s not safe for indigent families to be in shelters with those who can’t control their behavior no matter how much the latter also need help. The increasing reluctance of motels to support this program is partly because they now have other sources of revenue but also because of the damage and danger from those who need institutionalization.
If the $21 million were used as a downpayment on the long-term mental health facilities which Vermont is sorely lacking, it would’ve have helped both those who require institutionalization and those who need safe shelter. The federal money is drying up; squandering the remainder leaves us less able to deal with the very real problems we have. The rest of the legislative session deals mainly with budget. Unfortunately, there will be many other opportunities to fritter away the remaining federal COVID windfall on band aids rather than tackling problems which will be with is when the federal dollars are gone. It’s a time to watch legislators closely and speak up loudly.
BTW, the money spent bailing out uninsured depositors at Silicon Valley and Signature Banks is emergency spending we never should have done and will also breed further dependency, this time by the affluent. #Wealthfare is far less justified than welfare. Both the left and the right have plenty of bad governance to complain about this week.
The author, an author, entrepreneur, former Vermont state cabinet officer, lives in Stowe. He founded NG Advantage, a natural gas truck delivery company. This commentary is republished with permission from his blog, Fractals of Change.