Report: Emergency Housing Costs Unsustainable

The Vermont Agency of Human Services recently released a biannual report on the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program. Below is an article from the Burlington Free Press on how the report shows that the current cost of the program is unsustainable and what improvements may be made in the future:

The cost of Vermont’s emergency housing program is unsustainable due to burgeoning need during winter months and the use of motels, according to a report released Friday.

The state spent $4.2 million — $1.6 million dollars more than budgeted — this year on emergency housing. Some $2.3 million is allocated for next year, though in past years the Legislature has adjusted the budget to accommodate need in the community.

“The need for emergency housing and its cost continue to be prohibitively expensive, particularly among households with victims of domestic violence,” Chris Dalley of the Economic Services Division wrote in the report to the state Legislature. “Long-term funding for emergency housing in this manner is not sustainable.”

The number of people who received cold weather emergency housing increased by 80 percent between 2014 and 2015, from 6,835 to 12,279, said Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the Economic Services Division.

When homeless shelters are full, the state sends emergency housing recipients to motels. The average daily cost of motels has continued to burgeon annually from $47 in 2009 to $71 this year, according to the report.

“Over the past few years, the budget for emergency housing has been significantly challenging,” said Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families.

For example, last year, the Legislature adjusted the budget from $2.6 million to $3.2 million. The program still went over budget to $4.2 million for the fiscal year ending in June.

The majority of the overspending — $850,000—stemmed from need during the winter months.

Officials with the Department for Children and Families are working with community partners to come up with alternatives to motels, such as temporary or seasonal warming shelters, Schatz said.

For example, last winter, the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity opened a temporary warming shelter with 20 beds at the site of the old Ethan Allen Club on College Street in Burlington.

The Department for Children and Families helped to fund that community effort.

“That program was full every night it was open,” Schatz said. “Instead of having to pay for motels, the shelter addressed needs at a lower cost.”

“The cost of establishing and operating shelters is significantly less than giving motel vouchers, but opening them requires some preparation,” Schatz added.

Schatz said department officials are in discussions about the possibility of opening warming shelters next winter in Burlington and St. Johnsbury.

“We want to create alternatives to meet those housing needs without relying upon motels so motels would be a last resort,” Schatz said. “We are working with the community to identify what is missing in communities.”

State law requires the biannual report to the Legislature.

But Schatz noted that emergency housing in just one piece of addressing homelessness. The state also needs to provide more affordable housing, he said.

“Hopefully, we will move forward with more affordable housing and will reduce the need for emergency housing,” Schatz said.

To view the full article on the Burlington Free Press website, click here.

Low-Income Vermonters with Disabilities Sue State Over Benefit Cuts

Low-income Vermonters with disabilities are fighting back against state mandated reductions to their household Reach Up benefits. Vermont Legal Aid filed a class action lawsuit in federal court today on behalf of affected Vermonters alleging that a new law is unconstitutional and discriminates against households with family members with a disabling condition.

The new law counts $125 of adult Supplemental Security Income (SSI) income against a household’s temporary cash assistance (or “Reach Up”) benefits. The plaintiffs are asking the court for an injunction to stop the cuts from taking effect, and to declare the reductions unconstitutional, discriminatory and illegal.

“I feel like I’m being punished for having a disability,” said Robin Wheeler of Williamstown, one of the named plaintiffs in the suit. Ms. Wheeler suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, anxiety and depression. She said she has to meet the needs of herself and her 15-year old daughter and cannot afford any reduction in benefits.

“The State of Vermont is picking the pockets of the poor and disabled to solve its budget problems,” said Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis, who brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. “It’s unconscionable, it’s unfair, and it’s unlawful,” said Curtis.

Curtis said the benefit cuts are unnecessary pointing to recent news of a $21 million budget surplus. “Instead, the state has elected to levy a ‘poor tax’ on people with disabilities,” he said. “We cannot afford to have low-income families and children sacrificed on the altar of austerity,” said Curtis.

Notices were recently mailed to approximately 860 Vermont households advising them that their benefits would be reduced starting on August 1st. Many households were taken by surprise.

“I had no idea this was coming, and I think it is totally wrong,” said another plaintiff, Tina Bidwell of Johnson. Ms. Bidwell is blind and cares for her grandson. “I barely get by with my disability and I can’t afford the state taking away our benefits,” she said. Because she is blind, Ms. Bidwell has to pay for transportation to the grocery store, her doctor’s office, and other appointments.

Curtis pointed out that the state has told beneficiaries in its notice that the cuts will become effective immediately even if they appeal the decision reducing benefits starting August 1st. “Only the court has the power to stop these catastrophic reductions from taking place,” said Curtis. “So, we are asking for immediate relief to stop families from being harmed while the case is pending.”

The change in state statute relates to how benefits are computed. Currently, SSI beneficiaries are not considered part of a Reach Up assistance unit and their disability benefits are not counted in determining Reach Up grants. The new law set to go into effect August 1st seeks to count $125 of any adult SSI benefit received by a family member against the remaining family Reach Up grants resulting in a dollar-for-dollar reduction. The new law was part of a $1.6 million cut in the FY 2016 budget that passed over the objections of Vermont Legal Aid and other advocates.

The lawsuit alleges that the new policy deprives affected Vermonters of due process and equal protection because there is insufficient opportunity for pre- or post-termination relief and because it treats similarly situated families differently. It also alleges violations of federal and state law for treating certain households differently on the basis of disability status and for counting adult SSI income against the Reach Up grants, which Legal Aid contends violates Social Security law.

“It’s not enough that these families are already among the very poorest in Vermont. Now the state is singling out certain families with special needs resulting from disability for unequal treatment and benefit reductions,” said Curtis. “We will fight on behalf of low-income Vermont families with disabilities to stop these cuts from taking effect.”

Federal courts in Washington and West Virginia have issued injunctions in the past to stop similar cuts for children with SSI income whose households also receive temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) grants. Reach Up is Vermont’s TANF program. The proposed reductions in Vermont count adult SSI income, but do not count a child’s SSI income against a Reach Up grant.

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For more on this story, view the VT Digger coverage here and their original report on this reduction to Reach Up benefits here. To view this press release on the Vermont Legal Aid website, click here.

State Moves to End Family Homelessness By 2020

VT Digger discusses the progress being made on the plan to end family and child homelessness in Vermont by 2020. The plan, which was announced earlier in the year by Governor Shumlin, is also part of a national goal established by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness:

Vermont is rolling out an initiative to eliminate child and family homelessness by 2020.

The Vermont State Housing Authority is in the final stages of approving a new policy that would give families with children priority for vouchers for rental properties.

Under new policy, which was approved by the VSHA board last week, families that are working with a caseworker and receiving other services will qualify more quickly for subsidies that offset the cost of rent.

Richard Williams, executive director of VSHA, said the new housing rules will help families address other economic issues.

“If you have a roof over your head you can start to deal with other challenges,” Williams said.

The policy needs to be approved by the federal government before it can go into effect, which Williams expects will take a few months.

The change has been in the works since the beginning of the year, and the Housing Authority has taken public input on it. It is one step in the Shumlin administration’s three-pronged plan to eliminate family homelessness in the state by 2020.

“Homelessness is a challenge for everyone,” Williams said of the administration’s initiative, “but homelessness for families with kids should be the state’s priority.”

Angus Chaney, director of housing with the Agency of Human Services, told the Vermont Child Poverty Council on Tuesday that the state is moving forward with implementing the administration’s proposals.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of Human Services Hal Cohen unveiled the effort in March.

One of the biggest obstacles, Chaney said, is the state’s vacancy rate for rental housing units, which is less than 1 percent in some areas.

“All the subsidies and services in the world don’t reduce the number of homeless families if there’s no apartments to move into,” Chaney said.

The administration’s initiative includes a two-part plan to encourage private development of rental housing and to bring existing run-down properties up to code so they are able to be rented.

Chaney told the panel that the state still has a way to go on the “construction” portion of the initiative.

“Think of rental subsidies, supportive services and access to housing as the three legs of the stool when it comes to ending homelessness,” Chaney said Wednesday. “Unless they all line up in the proper quantities, things are precarious at best for people experiencing homelessness.”

According to a report by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness and the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, on the night of Jan. 27, there were 1,523 homeless Vermonters — a 2.3 percent reduction from last year.

Children were members of 199 of the households counted as homeless — 18.6 percent of the total.

Williams said the need for affordable housing in Vermont was underscored this spring when VSHA opened the waitlist for rental housing vouchers. In a month and a half, 1,600 people applied for vouchers, he said.

VSHA typically gives out between 25 and 30 vouchers per month.

Erhard Mahnke of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition said Vermont can end family homelessness in the next five years, but he underscored the need for additional support on the state and national level.

Congressional support for housing programs will be critical to the success of the initiative, as is support in Montpelier, he said.

“If the state is willing to provide some additional resources, it is something that is achievable,” Mahnke said.

For a link to the full article, click here.