State softens emergency housing rules for homeless

ADDISON COUNTY — Local human services advocates last week hailed a decision by state officials to substantially temper a series of temporary rules that would have barred a large segment of the state’s homeless population from accessing emergency stays in motel rooms.
The Vermont Department of Children & Families (DCF) had drafted some emergency rules — which were to have taken effect July 1 and lasted for 120 days until more permanent rules were established — in reaction to the Legislature’s decision this past session to allot $1.5 million during this fiscal year for emergency housing assistance, such as hotel vouchers for the homeless. That’s substantially less than the $4 million appropriated for that purpose last year.
The rules, among other things, called for implementation of a needs-based ratings system to determine who could qualify for emergency housing placements. The ratings system assessed a homeless person’s eligibility for emergency housing based on point totals in 11 different categories. For example, a person in the third trimester of pregnancy rated two points; someone older than 65 rated one point. A parent with a child younger than 6 rated three points, as did someone receiving Supplemental Security Income. People able to amass six or more points would qualify for emergency housing.
The rules would not have applied to people driven from their homes by natural disasters or people stranded in freezing temperatures.
Local and statewide organizations serving the homeless quickly assailed the new rules. John Graham Emergency Shelter Executive Director Elizabeth Ready and Jeanne Montross, leader of Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, both reported that the new rules would exempt the vast majority of their clients — including homeless seniors and pregnant woman — from accessing hotel vouchers.
It’s a message that apparently registered with DCF Commissioner Dave Yacovone and Doug Racine, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services. They convened a July 23 meeting at which they unveiled some new rules that are more lenient, according to Montross, one of the attendees.
Those amended rules provide automatic eligibility for four “vulnerable” populations, as defined by the Legislature: disabled people, those older than 65, women in the third trimester of pregnancy, and families with children up to 6 years old.
A points system will remain in effect for other categories of homeless people, according to Montross, such as those who have applied for, but are not yet receiving, Social Security disability benefits and families with children ages 7 to 17. However, the total points needed for an emergency housing placement has been lowered from six to four. And people will only be housed up to 28 days, not as many as 84, as in prior years, Montross noted.
Those evicted for circumstances within their control will not be eligible for hotel rooms, according to Montross; the cold weather exception will apply to everyone.
“While these rules are not perfect, (state officials) heard our concerns and we are relieved they were willing to adjust the rules in this manner,” Montross said.
The rules are scheduled to be reviewed by a legislative Committee on Administrative Rules on Aug. 22. The DCF is expected to formulate more permanent rules this fall.
“I think they will go through,” Montross said.
Ready was also pleased with the latest revisions.
“I think it’s a great step in the right direction,” she said.
“Hopefully, the administration realizes we’ll get a better product if we’re all seated at the table.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindep

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