As hundreds of homeless Vermonters are expected to lose access to motel rooms paid for by the state during the pandemic, advocates urged officials on Monday to extend the benefit even longer.
In July, the state extended the hotel voucher program 84 days for families with children, the disabled, pregnant women and other vulnerable people, and gave $2,500 checks to those no longer eligible.
About 543 of the 881 households in motel rooms will reach their 84-day limit on Thursday, advocates said at a Montpelier press conference.
“My clients are terrified that losing shelter will mean they’ll start to experience mental health declines, that gains that they’ve made in their recovery will be lost. Many of them have conditions that put them at high risk for serious COVID-related complications if they are to be infected,” said Mairead O’Reilly, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid.
Advocates say the extension is needed due to a lack of shelter beds and housing and a surge in COVID-19 cases with the spread of the delta variant.
A 30-day extension is available to families who are intensely engaged in case management, who can show a housing plan and for people who have the most severe disabilities, said O’Reilly.
“We don’t think that practically many of the folks who are currently sheltered will be able to take advantage of these,” she said.
The groups sent a letter to the commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families last week asking for the benefit to be extended as long as possible. Commissioner Sean Brown did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The state is investing $120 million to create more permanent and shared-housing arrangements while also encouraging shelters to expand, officials have said.
The ultimate solution is more affordable, safe and accessible housing, but right now, that's not available, said Kara Casey of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
“For survivors of domestic and sexual violence and many others, this just didn't mean a roof but safety," she said. “In our current climate with a pandemic still very much present and the affordable housing crisis, 84 days has proven to not be enough to be able to afford and to secure affordable housing.”
Another Way, a community drop-in center in Montpelier, is handing out camping gear, meals and handwarmers, said executive director Ken Russell.
While the motel program is imperfect, “it at least gets people out of the cold,” Russell said. “These are human beings we're talking about here. People are not outside just because of moral failings. They're in life crisis.”
They may have mental health, substance abuse or life challenges, he said.
“There’s not a strong enough system in place to take care of these folks," he said. “Any one of these folks indoors does better.”
In other pandemic-related developments:
Vermont health department officials say they’ll be ready to begin vaccinating children against COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine is approved for use.
“We’ve been doing the planning for this literally for months,” Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said earlier this month.
On Monday, vaccine maker Pfizer said its COVID-19 vaccine works for children ages 5 to 11 and that it will seek U.S. authorization for this age group soon — a key step toward beginning vaccinations for youngsters.
There is no immediate indication of when the vaccine could receive emergency use authorization for children in that age group.
Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for use in children as young as 12.
The Health Department says 72.9% of Vermont children ages 12-15 have been vaccinated.
Vermont reported 90 new COVID-19 cases on Monday for a statewide total since the pandemic began of more than 31,760.
A total of 46 people were hospitalized with the illness, including 15 who were in intensive care, the Vermont Health Department reported Monday.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Vermont has risen over the past two weeks from 146.00 new cases per day on Sept. 4 to 217.14 new cases per day on Sept. 18. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in Vermont has risen over the past two weeks from 1.00 deaths per day on Sept. 4 to 1.57 deaths per day on Sept. 18.
The AP is using data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering to measure outbreak caseloads and deaths across the United States.
AP reporter Wilson Ring contributed to this report. ___
This story was first published on September 20, 2021. It was corrected on September 21, 2021, to reflect that the state program that pays for hotel rooms for homeless people is expected to end Thursday, not Wednesday.