Inside Vermont’s newest homeless shelter: The So. Burlington Holiday Inn
Victor Guyette held up a photo of his daughter, Yvonna, on his smartphone. She was sitting on the shoulders of a fellow Marine Corps member, both wearing their camouflage uniforms. Yvonna was flexing her melon-sized biceps.
“I got her into weightlifting when she was about 10 and she took to it. She could kill me,” Guyette said with a laugh, sitting on the edge of his bed at the Holiday Inn in South Burlington.
He’s a short and stocky man with gray hair that also protrudes in flecks on his cheeks. His eyes don’t look tired when he talks about his kids. His daughter had just graduated from the Corps with a degree in photojournalism and his son, who is still in high school, has plans to become a chef.
Guyette, 58, is one of hundreds of Vermonters experiencing homelessness who have found refuge from the deadly coronavirus sweeping the globe in a hotel room, subsidized by the state.
When COVID-19 hit Vermont, officials scrambled to get those residing in shelters into confined rooms to allow for social distancing. Isolation was impossible to achieve in cramped shelters, so hotels were the next best option to keep an outbreak from occurring among some of Vermont’s most vulnerable.
And it worked. At the program’s peak, 2,000 Vermonters have been housed in hotels by the state. Only one person experiencing homelessness tested positive for the disease. None have died.
Now the state is attempting to figure out how to transition out the hundreds of people who have found respite in these hotel rooms. It’s a tricky maneuver exacerbated by the lack of affordable housing statewide. For the past three months, the Covid-19 hotel housing program has cost the state $13 million. After state officials asked for an additional $5.7 million to keep the program in place until at least September, paid out of the $1.25 billion the state received from the CARES Act, lawmakers last week approved funding for this and other housing efforts.
The program has also helped hotels at a time when they were not allowed to have guests other than essential workers, such as traveling nurses.
Guyette became homeless about a year ago. His wife had divorced him and kicked him out of their home in Barre. He was living out of his car in the fall until it became too cold to do so. Shortly after, it broke down.
He stayed at the Good Samaritan Haven in Barre until another blow hit: he had developed an abdominal aortic aneurysm which landed him in the emergency room. And then came the thoracic aortic aneurysm which required another hospital visit and surgery.
He was then moved into the Bel Aire Medical Respite facility located in Burlington where those experiencing homelessness can recuperate after receiving medical care.
Guyette continued his recovery at Anew Place, a shelter in Burlington. He enjoyed it there. He said he developed a group of friends he could lean on who were also surviving homelessness and the employees were helpful and kind. But in early March, the staff broke the news to Guyette and the others.
“We were all told on a Saturday we were going to be moved because of the virus. It was right after St. Patrick’s Day,” Guyette said. “That Saturday I got up and they were like ‘Ah, guess what? You’re going.’ And I thought they were joking.”
Because of Guyette’s recent surgeries and lingering medical conditions, he was one of the first shelter residents to be moved. He began his quarantine at the Quality Inn in Colchester.
“It became sort of like a crack house,” Guyette said, describing the hotel. “It was bad. There were drugs all over the place. You walk out of your room and somebody is like, ‘Oh you want something? You want some meth?’”
Guyette said people would be outside yelling in the parking lot until 4 a.m. He said the fire alarm went off frequently from people smoking indoors and that he had heard about some people getting mugged. He carried a knife with him.
“I was glad to get out of there,” Guyette said. He spent 10 weeks at the Quality Inn.
Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the economic services division and incoming commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, said the state was on the verge of losing partnerships with two hotels that are housing those experiencing homelessness because of incidents with residents. Damaged rooms and behavioral problems have led to tensions, he said.
Brown also knows of one resident being housed by the state who died from an overdose at a Brattleboro hotel during the pandemic.
“We’ve understood, early, that we were housing a lot of vulnerable homeless individuals who were struggling in a lot of different areas, substance abuse being one of those,” Brown said.
He said his agency has been doing its best to provide services in hotels to keep these conflicts contained. “These are not new issues for the program,” Brown said, “they’re just at a larger scale.”
In a statement to VTDigger, DCF spokesperson Luciana DiRuocco said that there has been “a regular security presence at the Quality Inn,” and that the state is “concerned about safety and accountability” at the hotels it partners with. She said the state does not directly manage any of these hotels but that it has entered into agreements with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, for example, which provides 24/7 services at the Holiday Inn.
Three weeks ago Guyette was moved to the Holiday Inn, where he’s felt reassured by the service providers who keep things orderly. Food donations from local food banks are also more organized at the hotel, Guyette said.
Here, he feels safe. He is connected with a case manager who is helping him find more stable housing — a condition that residents now need to fulfill in order to remain in their hotel housing as a part of the state’s plan to eventually transition them out.
Guyette’s dream is to buy a 20-foot-long sailboat and live his life on the water. But until then, he just wants an apartment he can afford once he can get back to the job he had before his surgeries, with Hertz driving cars to auctions.
“It’s kind of all been hitting me at once. The divorce, being homeless. And then the pandemic. For a while it was overwhelming and I got really depressed,” Guyette said.
“But it’s getting better, slowly but surely.”
The road to sustainable housing
Pamela Williams seemed unfazed by her current stressors as she sat in a Holiday Inn conference room in mid-June. A smaller woman, her cropped black hair flecked with gray, she was expressionless. Her thin, gray eyebrows and dark eyes didn’t provide any emotional cues to compensate for the blue mask covering the bottom half of her face.
The pandemic beyond the walls of the hotel where she was living was simply an annoyance to her. She just wanted to get back to the work she’s looking for in education.
But that’s become even trickier these days as jobs become more scarce in a pandemic that’s been bleeding Vermont businesses dry. On top of that, Williams said important documents — her Social Security card, passport and birth certificate — were recently stolen when she was living in Chicago, just before the pandemic hit.
Without those documents, registering at a new workplace and finding stable housing has become even more difficult. Williams, 61, has a master’s degree in social work from Bryn Mawr College and said that she’s taught at some local colleges.
“That just really holds up everything. It means you’re stuck,” Williams said. “Because these offices aren’t open. The office of vital records isn’t open.”
Williams was recently able to secure a job at Home Depot in Williston, which is accessible via bus line from the Holiday Inn. She was previously housed in a hotel in Middlebury. Because of its location, she wasn’t able to find a job on a bus line, prompting her to transfer to the Holiday Inn in South Burlington.
Now, she has a bit more mobility, which Williams enjoys. She lives a nomadic lifestyle — she’s moved back and forth from Vermont a few times. She’s lived and worked in Iowa, Maryland and New York. She came back to Vermont from Chicago in January, just before the pandemic was about to hit. She was couch surfing, which became more difficult to do as social distancing became the norm. So she found herself in a hotel room.
Williams hasn’t had stable housing since 2017, she said, the last time period she was able to land a stable teaching job on a limited contract. At times she said she was able to find shared housing opportunities through connections in Vermont’s meditation community. Williams, a passionate meditator, said she has been drawn back to Vermont because of its reputation for natural living.
“I really like the Vermont lifestyle,” Williams said. “The outdoors, there are a lot of people who are very creative, they really stick with what original ingenuity means. A lot of people do sustainable produce or farming.”
That lifestyle has also contributed to her unstable housing situation. Seasonal, semester-long work doesn’t afford sustainable housing options, Williams said.
She said she’s trying to do everything she can to get back up on her feet. She found a job, she has a plan to find housing. She just needs time to find stability, which she hopes the state can afford her.
“They make it very clear they want people to be on the road to getting sustainable housing,” Williams said, referring to the economic services staff she’s been communicating with. She has to call the state’s economic services office every two weeks to renew her stay at the Holiday Inn — another push from the state that signals to residents that they need to figure out their next step beyond their hotel stay.
“But like I said, the biggest block is that I have all this paperwork sitting in the drawer right now until my Social Security card and birth certificate comes,” Williams said.
“I just need some fair housing.”
A grand experiment
A box of Ensure nutritional drinks sat in front of Travis Poulin in the Chittenden Community Action in downtown Burlington. It provided evidence that Poulin, director of the program, which is part of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, sometimes breaks his own rules.
His staff isn’t allowed to bring food to the homeless populations they serve, or give them rides due to liability concerns. But when Poulin hears about clients of his isolating in a part of town where a grocery store is not easily accessible, he said he cuts some corners.
“We don’t give rides to clients. That’s just a standard because there’s too many issues that could arise from that,” Poulin said. “So we absolutely don’t. Despite those few times when I have.”
Poulin has been incredibly busy since the pandemic hit Vermont in mid-March. Ordinarily, his organization helps vulnerable Vermonters find economic stability through a number of programs. Part of that charge includes helping Vermonters find transitional or long-term housing.
Throw in a pandemic, and now the added expectation that 2,000 people need to be transitioned out of the hotels come September — 400 of whom are within Chittenden County, the population his office serves — Poulin said his housing case workers are feeling the burden.
“It’s day by day,” Poulin said. “Some days we’ve talked to the staff and they’ve said ‘Wow are we overwhelmed.’ And it’s not just the volume of people of course. Many of the folks who are living through chronic homelessness have a lot of challenges. It’s not as simple as finding housing.”
The state is trying to ease this overwhelming demand. In its hotel transition plan, it proposed that an additional $6 million go toward housing case management in the state.
Poulin and his team have been on the frontlines of the state’s Covid-19 homelesness response. The CVOEO has been organizing food deliveries to motels and fielding calls from those living there in an effort to provide any support services they may need.
That includes helping them fill out housing applications, which have been stacking up, Poulin said. But despite the hard work his staff is putting in, the chance that all those currently living in Vermont’s hotels will be able to find affordable, long-term housing in the next few months is slim.
Even before the pandemic hit, Poulin said he’s seen Vermonters on housing waiting lists for up to a year. Lately, he’s had to deliver this bad news frequently: “I can tell you right now,” Poulin has said to his clients, “that in terms of me setting expectations, you are more than likely not going to be able to have housing in the next few months.”
This reality conflicts with some of the state’s goals. Brown, who has lead DCF’s economic services division through the Covid-19 crisis so far, has made clear there will be no eviction date when all Vermonters housed by the state in hotels need to move on. But the state is laying the groundwork to transition them onward.
Which is why there is a plan to support the construction of 250 housing rental units across the state, funded out of the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act money, to help ease the lack of vacancies in affordable housing. Still, those units would only meet a fraction of the need. The other hitch is that the money needs to be spent and the units need to be built by December 2020, as required by federal guidelines.
The size and ambition of this plan is like nothing Poulin has seen the state embark on in his 27 years of work with the CVOEO. He praised the state for its initial response to the Covid-19 crisis. He thinks officials have been listening and responding to the needs that advocates on the ground have been asking for. But Poulin said he “doubts” the state will be able to transition people out of the hotels by December.
“Whether or not their goal is realistic, I can’t say,” Poulin said. “Is it probably the best plan to have in place at this point to focus on long term goals for people who are homeless right now? I think it is.”
This predicament presents a sort of grand experiment before advocates and officials that, to Poulin, does have a silver lining. Housing advocates have long pushed that a “housing first” approach — where citizens first have access to stable housing and food — can produce the remaining stabilities needed to generate a high-quality life: a job, health care and support systems.
Hotels are providing that initial level of stability, Poulin said. They’re not sustainable solutions, but if the state is successful with this transition, the entirety of the state could benefit from a less government-reliant and more stable, post-homeless population.
“I’m looking at this as an opportunity for many of the people who have been experiencing chronic homelessness,” Poulin said.
“There is no cookie cutter approach. But I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful.”
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