Day Two of The Great Unhousing passed with far less fanfare than Day One, but the human toll was just as high and the consequences just as shameful. Our area of central Vermont was hit by a tremendous rainstorm yesterday afternoon, and I had to wonder how many of the newly-unhoused were being thoroughly soaked and their possessions destroyed by the downpour. Too bad the state’s “Adverse Weather Policy” is only designed to minimize the number of people who actually freeze to death. Dangerous heat and severe storms? Eh, that’s okay, I guess.
(The image above is taken from a video posted on Twitter by Brenda Siegel. I used a screenshot where the person’s face is obscured because I want to be illustrative without being exploitive. We do need to be reminded of the humanity behind the statistics and the policy debates without reducing our fellow Vermonters to political props. I appreciate Siegel continuing to bear witness; somebody’s got to.)
There was little media coverage on Day Two because there wasn’t anything “new,” just another day of unnecessary misery. Just another day when people who were living on the edge come closer to falling over. Just another day when the bland professions of our political class ring hollow. Heck, the only thing that’s got them hot and bothered is a bit of vandalism on their doorsteps.
At this moment I have a hard time ginning up any outrage on their behalf. We’d all like to feel secure in our homes, and I understand that. It’s just that some people don’t have homes at all, and our leaders played an active role in making that happen.
Now that a judge has tossed a spear into the chest of those who hoped to prevent The Great Unhousing, the next political step will be the upcoming veto override session in the Legislature, scheduled for June 20-22. The House and Senate will be trying, among other things, to override Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the FY2024 budget.
They should have a comfortable margin of victory, but 17 Democratic/Progressive lawmakers have promised to vote against override of any budget that doesn’t extend the motel voucher program and build an offramp to better housing solutions. This week, I’ve had two conversations that shed contradictory light on the pending budget debate: One cast doubt on the very idea of reopening the budget, while the other basically called bullshit on the first.
Scenario number one. The budget override attempt will be an up-or-down vote on the budget as adopted by the House and Senate. No changes allowed. That wouldn’t prevent leadership from negotiating with the 17 between now and then, but they couldn’t amend the budget before the vote. The best they could do is craft a Plan B to expedite the process after an override failure.
Now, let’s assume the override fails. At that point, the power swings to Gov. Phil Scott. Counterintuitive, but here’s why.
I won’t try to convince you that I hate to say “I told you so,” but it’s true that I hate to have to tell you I told you so. Way back on March 26, when legislative leaders were assuring us that the end of the motel voucher program was being prepared for, that there’s no way we’d actually leave thousands of Vermonters without shelter, I wrote this:
When we see pictures of mass evictions, stories about struggling Vermonters suddenly tossed into the void, and coverage of human service providers despairing at the chasm between demand and supply, the Democrats will not be able to shirk responsibility for it.
Well, today was Day One of The Great Unhousing, and our print and broadcast media are full of stories about people having nowhere to go and pictures of desolate evictees surrounded by their possessions. VTDigger: a distraught young woman sits on a curb with hastily-packed items in bags on the pavement and no idea where she’s going. The Bennington Banner: an older woman loads her belongings into her car, where she’s planning to sleep into the indefinite future. WCAX: a young man says he’s “probably [sleeping] in the street.” Channel 22/44: A young mother says “we don’t know what’s next” and “it’s terrifying.” WPTZ: A middle-aged man talks of “reaching out to friends, seeing if anyone has a room available.” The Rutland Herald: Small towns in Rutland County struggle to prepare for a possible influx of the unhoused. Vermont Public: an outreach worker in Burlington describes a demand for tents, cooking supplies, and other necessities of outdoor living.
Oh, and also on Vermont Public: vaunted nice guy Gov. Phil Scott talks of how “some choose to maybe set up a tent somewhere.”
“Choose.” As if they were given a choice. Good God.
Nice try, Vermont Legal Aid, but the judge tossed you out of court. And in a nice little development, essentially blamed legislative Democrats for enabling the abrupt end of the motel voucher program. On we go with the unhousing!
Judge Timothy Tomasi rejected VLA’s request for an injunction halting the evictions scheduled to begin today (under a nice hot 90-degree sun). He saw little chance that VLA would succeed in its case, hence there were no grounds to stop the process pending a full hearing in court. This, despite the fact that Tomasi’s decision included the sentence: “The Court agrees that removing persons from their rightful homes and subjecting them to homelessness is an irreparable harm.”
Mighty white of him to notice, but gosh darn it, their particular “irreparable harm” doesn’t have a judicial remedy according to Tomasi.
I had a feeling the judge would find a way around Legal Aid’s argument. Standing in the way of a government action isn’t something the courts take lightly. (Unless we’re talking the John Roberts Supreme Court, of course.) His decision is still a big disappointment since VLA seemed to have strong arguments. But the judge found reason to ignore those arguments, thanks in large part to the Legislature. Yay, Democrats!
Remember what I’ve written about the cost of ending the motel voucher program being higher than the cost of keeping it going? And i mean the purely financial cost, leaving aside the moral dimension of unhousing 80% of Vermont’s homeless.
Well, here’s a nice real-life example. The city of Barre has offered the use of its B.O.R. Arena as a shelter space for the next three months.
For a price.
Specifically $29,025 a day.
That’s what the state of Vermont would have to pay the city to use the Arena as a shelter, according to City Manager Nick Storellicastro.
At that rate, a fully-occupied Arena shelter would cost about $125 per household — which is a bit lower than what the state is paying right now per motel room, but quite a bit higher than the figure offered by former gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel, who says motel operators are willing to accept $100 per day.
And that $125 does not include the cost of 24/7 staffing, which Storellicastro is not offering to provide.
This ought to make everyone think twice about the sheer financial wisdom of ending the voucher program. It puts the state and municipalities in a sheer scramble to accommodate people, and that usually results in wasted time, energy, and money.
Even as the first round of The Great Unhousing is literally just around the corner, Vermont Legal Aid has stepped in with a class-action lawsuit seeking to force an extension of the motel voucher program. And to judge from the complaint filed in Washington County Court, it may well win this thing because of the Scott administration’s sheer incompetence in operating the program.
VLA sued on behalf of five voucher clients plus “other similarly situated,” presumably meaning the 1,800 households due to lose their shelter at the end of this month, next month, or possibly late July. (The administration has announced a four-week extension for some of those scheduled to lose eligibility on July 1, but can’t even specify how many will qualify for an extension. Sloppy, no?)
A hearing is scheduled for Thursday, where VLA will seek an injunction blocking the state from evicting any voucher clients and force the state to follow due process from here on.
At first glance, I thought this was kind of a Hail Mary. After all, can’t a government decide to terminate a program? But the complaint (downloadable here) paints a picture of managerial ineptitude pervasive enough to provide a basis for court action. Assuming VLA’s complaint is accurate, and they don’t have the reputation of making stuff up for the hell of it.
And boy, wouldn’t it be ironic, don’tcha think, if Team Scott was forced to continue the program because it made a complete hash of the process?
The pace of news continues at breakneck speed on our developing and self-inflicted dehousing crisis. This installment’s title is courtesy of Barre Mayor John Hemmerick, whose city is desperately trying to plan for the first installment of The Great Dehousing, which is now only a couple of days away.
In central Vermont, two charities have combined to raise over $15,000 (the goal is $20K; chip in here if you can) for tents and sleeping bags and such to distribute to the soon-to-be-unsheltered. The city of Montpelier is looking into a possible winter shelter at the city’s Recreation Center, and Barre is hoping to offer shelter at the Barre Auditorium. The problem there is not so much setting it up, as staffing it. The city doesn’t have the means, and local shelter operators are already doing everything they can.
Both cities are discussing the seemingly inevitable encampments that will follow Our Great Leaders’ decision to end the motel voucher program that provides shelter to 80% of Vermont’s unhoused. Mayor Hemmerick offered this comment to The Bridge:
It is a sad day in America and Vermont when tiny municipal governments must look to … informal settlement and slum management policies to do the unthinkable in the wealthiest nation on earth: sanction substandard encampments and living conditions.
Slum management, folks. That’s where we’re at in good old caring old Vermont.
It’s been a bizarre week or so in Vermont politics, as Our Esteemed Leaders have just been falling all over each other trying not to address the imminent unsheltering of hundreds of Vermonters. (Which will happenon Thursday for those keeping track of such things.) They’re far more interested in positioning themselves and shifting blame than in crafting a humane and eminently doable way out of this mess.
Thursday is the day when some 800 households will lose eligibility for the motel voucher program that’s being allowed to expire for no good reason except, well, as Gov. Phil Scott likes to say, “It’s time.” Another 1,000 or so households will lose their places on July 1 or 29, depending.
The uncertainty stems from the governor’s deft sidestepping of the Democrats’ obvious ploy to trick him into signing the budget (spoiler alert: he vetoed the thing). In so doing, he managed to position himself to the left of the Democrats by allowing a ridiculous 28-day extension for some voucher clients. But not the ones about to lose their accommodations next week, no sirree Bob. The governor’s shift, which flies in the face of his previous insistence that the voucher program just absolutely had to end on schedule, was so hastily put together that this was how VTDigger summarized its impact:
It’s unclear how many people will receive the extra month of shelter. An actual breakdown was not available from state officials on Friday…
To put it another way, it’s just the latest Phil Scott clusterfuck on emergency housing. And yet, he’s in position to look like a hero — relatively speaking — not only for this inadequate extension, but also for the administration’s apparently precipitous issuance of an RFP for creation and staffing of up to 1,000 emergency shelter beds. The Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for their predicament.
Which leads us to the sad figure pictured above: former deputy secretary of state Chris Winters, seen here realizing that his soul is in a sealed jar on Jason Gibbs’ desk.
Well, in case you were wondering where Vermont Democrats’ heads were at regarding the unsheltering of thousands of Vermonters, now we know: Still firmly lodged up a windowless orifice. Instead of trying to resolve a humanitarian crisis of their own creation, not to mention heal a divide in their beloved legislative caucus, they’ve been trying to find a way to deflect the blame onto the governor. While, at the same time, begging him to solve a huge political problem for them.
Admittedly I’m somewhat burying the lead, because the most impactful thing is that Democratic leadership remains bound and determined to end the motel voucher program even though it currently provides shelter for 80% of Vermont’s unhoused.
This is [checks notes] the party of compassion, right? The party that fights for the metaphorical Little Guy? Yeah, gee, I wonder what the hell happened to that party.
That’s the real lead — the Vermont Democratic Party has lost its way — but the thing that grates on my nerves as a Vermont Political Observer is how profoundly stupid the politics of this maneuver are.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. conceived of the Poor People’s Campaign as a way to bring the voices of the poor to Washington. D.C. It was one of those radical ideas conveniently memory-holed by conservatives in their annual one-day co-opting of Dr. King, but it was central to his efforts to bring a measure of economic justice to America. He never got there in person, thanks to an assassin’s bullet.
The debate over extending Vermont’s motel voucher program has made it clear we need a Poor People’s Campaign right here in Vermont, because it’s obvious that the voices of the poor need to be heard as loudly as any other in the halls of the Statehouse.
Well, to be fully accurate, one part of the debate has made that clear. It’s the part provided by Brenda Siegel, who’s been bringing the stories of voucher clients to our attention and, in so doing, forcing The Comfortable to feel a wee bit less comfy.
So, modest proposal: A lobbying organization which, for placeholder purposes, I’m calling “Dignity.” Anyone who does the actual work gets to take as little or as much of this idea as they want.