Vermont has received $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds through the federal CARES Act, which have time constraints and restricted uses. One of the allowable uses is providing for the needs of the unhoused as a response to the public-health emergency created by COVID-19, and another is providing relief for renters hit hard by loss of work.

Since the middle of March, a heroic effort by state agencies and nonprofit community partners prevented an outbreak of COVID-19 among some of Vermont’s most vulnerable people. The state drastically reduced the number of people in homeless shelters, and others left encampments, their cars or moved from overcrowded, shared living, situations into motels to protect their health and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Housing with separate kitchen facilities, private bathrooms and sleeping areas with appropriate social distancing is essential for public health.

Today, approximately 2,000 Vermonters are safe and sheltered in this way. But come June 30, there’s no plan in place for where people will live — except back to the situations deemed a public health emergency just two months ago. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to radically reduce homelessness in Vermont while continuing to control the spread of COVID-19.

The state is spending about $117,000 per day on the motels. This equates to about $3.5 million per month. The motels were a good emergency response, but the financial and social costs are not sustainable.

The legislature must act quickly to allocate federal funding through the Coronavirus Relief Fund. Affordable housing groups presented a plan as a starting point. The goal is to fix a broken system, to prevent a future outbreak of COVID-19, and to build a bridge from the use of temporary motels to permanent housing options. The immediate issuance of Vermont Rental Vouchers is an important first action. Pairing rental assistance with supportive services to prevent homelessness from recurring and capital to enable organizations to lease, acquire, renovate and build affordable, permanent housing are essential to eliminating homelessness and maintaining public health.

We can work together but need the support from the Agency of Human Services to advance our commitment to end homelessness using community-based solutions that offer dignity to people in crisis and enhance public health for everyone. For many, ending homelessness has always been a moral issue. Today, it’s a critical public health one. The Legislature and administration can break the state’s cycle of emergency response to homelessness and replace it with permanent housing in Vermont communities that will serve vulnerable people for years to come.

The pandemic has revealed cracks in our social, cultural and political systems. Low-income people and people of color have been disproportionately impacted. Prior to COVID-19, housing shortages and high housing costs had increased homelessness beyond the capacity of service providers. This left many with few better options than a tent. Today’s crisis is an opportunity for change. It is time for the legislature and administration to act.

This commentary was signed by Brenda Torpy, Champlain Housing Trust; Eileen Peltier, Downstreet Housing and Community Development; Nancy Owens, Housing Vermont; Andrew Winter, Twin Pines Housing; and Elizabeth Bridgewater, Windham Windsor Housing Trust.

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