As the Legislature steams toward adjournment in, what, 48 hours from now?, efforts continue to find a way of solving the homelessness crisis staring us in the face. Or at least a face-saving way of putting a Band-Aid on that brain tumor.
There may have been an outcome by the time you read this. The House-Senate conference committee on the FY2024 budget has held multiple meetings this week. Each time they’ve skipped over the housing issue; at the close of yesterday’s meeting, Senate Appropriations chair Jane Kitchel alluded to negotiations on an unspecified issue holding up the completion of the compromise budget. One has to assume she’s talking about housing. It’s the only issue that’s sparked a last-ditch revolt by lawmakers who’d rather not be responsible for mass evictions from the motel voucher program. At least, they’d rather not be perceived as responsible.
But no matter which way this goes, it’s already a policymaking failure of epic proportions. We’re approaching mid-May. Eligibility standards for the voucher program will tighten in three weeks, and the program will virtually disappear one month after that. Decisions should have been made long ago. If the budget includes reasonable funding for vouchers, there will be a mad scramble to implement the extension. If it doesn’t, well, it’s all hands on deck, five alarm fire, Defcon One, and the little dog saying “It’s Fine” in the middle of a conflagration.
The street-level desperation that fails to penetrate Fort Statehouse is getting thick on the ground. On Monday night, the Barre City Council tried to address a situation that might be a true emergency or merely a passing unpleasantness, depending on factors entirely out of their control. Councilors heard that the city might have to deal with 400 unhoused people as of July 1. (Which is, again, less than eight weeks from now.)
There was talk of opening up the Barre Auditorium as a shelter. The problem with that kind of stopgap, as Rick DeAngelis of Good Samaritan Haven has made clear, is that opening the doors to a shelter is the easy part. The hard part is staffing it and running it. Good Samaritan has its hands full with its own bursting-at-the-seams shelter operations, and the city is completely unequipped to take on that managerial load.
Remember when I wrote that the cost of ending the voucher program will exceed the cost of extending it? Well, here it is in real life. Cities and towns across Vermont will be confronting a mass unhousing event while the Legislature will be safely adjourned for the summer.
Leaders of Barre, Barre Town, Berlin and Montpelier held “a hastily arranged news conference” yesterday afternoon which I did not hear about until after the fact. Per WCAX, they talked of an estimated 1,000 people being tossed from motels in central Vermont and begged state officials to craft a more effective transition plan than, well, no plan whatsoever.
Adding to the chaos: Nobody really knows how many of the unhoused will end up where. There may be 1,000 in central Vermont right now, but we don’t know where they came from or where they might go. The motel program has operated like a tactical Cuisinart, tossing people around the state depending on where motel rooms are available. (Kind of like inpatient mental health services or our prison system. The needy are apparently fungible.) That’s why Rutland and Washington counties are among those with a surprisingly high number of voucher clients. Those counties have a good supply of low-cost motel rooms.
But if the voucher program ends, do clients return to where they came from or do they stick around? We don’t know. That’s just one small piece of a desperate situation.
Meanwhile, the Powers That Be are busy addressing their own desperate situation, which is the potential public relations disaster they’re helping to create. Fearless advocate Brenda Siegel took to Twitter the other day to describe the “tone policing” she’s been hit with. Apparently some in the Statehouse are uncomfortable with her using words like “crisis” or “catastrophe” or reminding us that “people will die” if the unhousing proceeds.
I understand their discomfort, since it’s their failure that has created the potential crisis slash catastrophe. Problem is, Siegel’s words may be inconvenient but they’re absolutely accurate. This may not be as big a crisis as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown or Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but it’s a full-blown crisis for every single one of the 2,500-odd Vermonters who have no idea where they’ll be living from July 1 onward. It’s already taking a severe toll on their well-being. They are already in crisis, and policymakers in the administration and Legislature have no one to blame but themselves.
They may pull a rabbit out of a hat. They may have done so by the time you read this. But even if they do, let us not forget that they were the ones responsible for a crisis that does not have to happen. Not in a state that’s running a $200 million surplus and has a fully-stocked rainy day fund.
Not in a state that prides itself on its progressivism and its compassion. Empty words.
Was reading the Digger article about people thinking being homeless is easy. I’ve been thinking about this. Just think of walking a mile in their shoes. No money, no shower, no bathroom, begging for everything. I don’t have words only tears in my eyes.
montpelier28, your response is typical of vermonters and virtue-signaling montpelierites including jwalt. tears and words do nothing, accomplish nothing….
So DO SOMETHING VERMONT!!!
I would slightly rephrase your very apt title to say, “Blessed are the policy makers, for they shall be insulated from the consequences of their ACTIONS.”