In February, temperatures dropped to minus 19 degrees at the Burlington International Airport, breaking a record that stood since 1914.
Vermont set more troubling records this winter as well — the most consecutive nights where a cold weather exemption gave homeless people in the state access to emergency housing.
For 69 days, from Dec. 29 to March 8, every county in the state met the requirement for a cold weather exemption. When temperatures drop below 20 degrees, or below 32 degrees with snow or freezing rain, the state relaxes the eligibility requirements for emergency housing.
That’s the longest streak of statewide cold weather exemptions since the program’s implementation three years ago.
At the same time, the number of people, especially families, who are homeless and seeking emergency shelter from the cold has also increased, according to state officials. Their ranks well exceed the capacity of warming shelters, and the state is housing homeless Vermonters in hotel rooms.
The state approved $3.4 million to cover 36,314 hotel nights through the end of February; 8,942 were for the people who qualified under the cold weather exemption, at a cost of $1.5 million. Virtually all that money is spent on hotel and motel lodgings. Those numbers may come down as sometimes people approved for a hotel stay don’t show, and it can take up to two months for the state to receive bills from participating hotels.
The amount that has been approved already exceeds the $3.2 million in the current budget for emergency housing. That appropriation includes an additional $600,000 from the Budget Adjustment Act — and it does not include March, which has had a number of cold weather nights in many areas of the state.
“Based on our current spending we are going to be over budget,” said Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of economic services for the Department for Children and Families. “We are going to have to re-evaluate our budget for the program and find a new way forward.”
Appropriating more money for the current budget would require approval from the Emergency Board, a panel chaired by the governor and consisting of the chairs of the Legislature’s money committees.
Even with the opening of a new 20-bed warming shelter at the old Ethan Allen Club in Burlington, the highest demand area, costs continue to mount. That shelter has run at overflow capacity since opening in early February, housing between 24 and 28 people per night, according to Brown.
It still hasn’t been enough to keep up with demand, and costs continue to mount.
“Given the growth in the need in the program, that didn’t put a huge dent in spending,” Brown said.
Next year, the state will open a 52-bed shelter in downtown Burlington, which will help reduce costs Brown said, but at the same time, the governor’s proposed budget cuts $300,000 from the program in anticipation of those savings.
A dramatic rise in homelessness is driving the need for emergency housing. Requests for housing were up 64 percent through December, and the state provided 50 percent more hotel rooms per night. More families are seeking shelter, and there has been a 144 percent increase in the number of children who received housing through the cold weather exemption.
The events that lead to homelessness are varied and often unique to the individual or their family. Still, advocates point to the rise in substance abuse disorders, especially opiate addiction, stagnant wages and a lack of affordable housing in the state as a few of the underlying causes.