Times Argus: State saving on motel vouchers

MONTPELIER — The state’s General Assistance and Emergency Housing Program has seen a reduction in costs so far in the current budget year, according to a report from the Department for Children and Families.

Lawmakers requested the report in the annual mid-year budget adjustment bill to gauge the effectiveness of new community-based alternatives to the motel voucher system the state uses to house the homeless or others in emergency situations.

According to the report, which goes through February, the state has spent $2,281,321 on emergency housing — a 15.7 percent decrease through the same time period from the 2015 fiscal year.

The emergency housing system includes motel voucher use through the General Assistance program, community-based alternatives to motel usage and shelter programs administered by the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Between July 2015 and the end of December 2015, the General Assistance program granted emergency housing benefits to 1,097 households for a total of 20,585 shelter nights. The households included 649 single people and 448 families with 800 children. About half of the authorized households reported being victims of domestic violence, according to the report.

The state offers emergency housing assistance to people who meet eligibility requirements. Those meeting the catastrophic category can receive assistance for up to 84 days in a 12-month period. Those meeting the vulnerable requirement can receive assistance for up to 28 days in a 12 month period.

To be eligible under the catastrophic category, people must have become homeless due to circumstances such as natural disaster, constructive eviction, court ordered eviction over which the applicant had no control, death of a spouse or minor child or domestic violence, according to DCF. To be eligible under the vulnerable category, an applicant must have a dependent under the age of 6, be age 65 or older, be in receipt of disability benefits or be in the third trimester of pregnancy.

Three DCF districts in the state — Burlington, St. Johnsbury and Middlebury — began offering community-based alternatives to motel vouchers in November and December. The state saw “a marked and precipitous reduction of spending on hotel and motel vouchers” in those districts, according to the report.

In Burlington, the state spent about 75 percent less on motel vouchers. In Middlebury and St. Johnsbury, the spending was reduced by about 75 percent and 85 percent, respectively.

DCF, in its report, said “projecting future use and spending” is “an extremely difficult and unpredictable task” because it is based on factors that cannot be predicted, such as natural disasters, personal catastrophes and variable weather. Still, the department anticipates the spending patterns for the remainder of the fiscal year “will hold or stay level,” resulting in a total expenditure of about $3.9 million. That would be less than the $4.3 million spent in the 2015 fiscal year.

The state awarded about $788,000 in grants for community assisted alternatives to motel vouchers in the current budget. According to the report, community-based alternatives to motel vouchers have “provided some encouraging results.” But those alternatives have only been available for a short time and in a handful of communities.

“Although there are reasons to be optimistic about the decreasing trends in reliance on motel usage, we understand that there are still many challenges ahead. More investigation is needed into emerging trends such as the decrease in numbers served by motels but for longer durations of stay,” the report states.