While some called it a stunt, Brenda Siegel and Josh Lisenby (and others along the way) put faces to the struggle of homelessness in the face of adverse weather conditions.

For 27 nights, Siegel and her team slept on the State House steps to raise awareness and put pressure on the Scott administration to introduce a policy that would continue the Emergency Shelter Program, since temperatures were starting to dip.

It has been a warmer than normal autumn, but advocates for the vulnerable population in Vermont have made things chilly for state and local officials.

This week, the Department for Children and Families announced that, to enhance predictability and stability for program participants, the Adverse Weather Conditions policy for the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program will be applied for a 100-day period from Nov. 22 through March 1, 2022.

“This was the big ask, and it happened. And we are just practically in tears that we are so relieved,” Siegel told VTDigger.

It took courage to stand up to the administration and Mother Nature. And we commend Siegel and team for her victory.

So what does the policy look like?

According to a news release issued Wednesday, the Adverse Weather Conditions policy has historically been applied on a day-by-day basis, based on weather forecasts and conditions. To reduce the need for beneficiaries of the program to reapply on a daily basis, the State will open eligibility during this time period, which is historically when it sees the most use.

During this period:

Vermonters will have to meet eligibility criteria, which include: an urgent need for housing; income guidelines; and a lack of adequate financial resources available to secure housing on their own.

However, enhanced predictability through the Adverse Weather Conditions policy will be achieved through the following variables: Qualifying for temporary shelter will not depend on the day-to-day weather conditions; and people will not have to fit into one of the categories to get assistance:

— Individual older than 60 or with a disability.

— Person fleeing domestic violence.

— Family with children or pregnant.

—Or lost housing due to a natural disaster.

According to the release, shelter space will be used as a first option for individuals — unless there are safety concerns related to domestic violence.

Beginning March 2, 2022, Adverse Weather Conditions will remain in effect, but will revert to the traditional weather conditions for shelter criteria.

According to the release, before the pandemic, the General Assistance Emergency Housing Program typically served about 250 individuals on any given night. Current eligibility is significantly expanded from pre-pandemic standards, and the program currently serves over 1,500 people. The Adverse Weather Condition policy allows people who do not meet current categorical eligibility to use the program, provided they meet the other eligibility requirements, it stated.

“The General Assistance Emergency housing program is not an ideal setting for people experiencing homelessness. The State and DCF continue to work to help transition people who are in the program into stable, long-term housing, which is better for the health and safety of Vermonters,” it states.

According to the VTDigger report, the federal government has promised to pick up the tab for the state’s emergency housing program at least through April 1.

Around the state, advocates for the homeless population were breathing a sigh of relief.

There is a critical need. According to The Associated Press, about 950 households were in motels with the number of rooms at capacity as summer and autumn tourism increased, said Department for Children and Families Commissioner Sean Brown.

The issue has forced some communities to answer the call locally, as well, including Montpelier (the very city where Siegel slept on the steps for 27 nights) to take care of people who are out on the streets. The Capital City recently passed a homelessness relief package to provide hotel rooms for those who aren’t in the emergency program.

Now, knowing vulnerable Vermonters will be safe despite the temperatures outside, lawmakers, the administration and communities can start the hard work of finding some real solutions to our homelessness issue.

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