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.