In 2022, I was Vermont’s Democratic nominee for governor. I am a proud member of my party and a fiercely devoted citizen of my state. But now, I am publicly pleading with the party that chose me as its standard-bearer last year to step back from the brink of making one of the biggest crises in our state even worse.
On May 12, the Vermont state legislature—which contains a Democratic super-majority in both chambers—passed a budget that will effectively throw 80 percent of the state’s unhoused population out of the shelters they have been living in since the Covid pandemic began. The initiative cost around $50 million a year, a drop in the bucket of an $8.5 billion budget. The lives of nearly 3,000 people—including 500 to 600 children—and the soul of our state hang in the balance.
At the onset of the pandemic, Vermont expanded its emergency housing program to shelter unhoused Vermonters safely in motels. The program protected this population from the worst impacts of a housing crisis that has now reached a breaking point. Our state has an estimated shortage of up to 40,000 housing units, with the lowest rental vacancy rates and the second-highest rate of homelessness in the United States.
Now, though, Democratic legislators, along with Republican Governor Phil Scott, have decided to end the motel shelter program. Today, June 1, the state is set to evict the first 766 families that have benefited from the program, sending them back out onto the streets. On July 1, a further 1,056 households will be removed from shelter. This willful indifference will unleash a humanitarian crisis of our own making.
Legislative leadership did not put any money in the budget to keep people appropriately sheltered. Instead, they pledged $12.5 million of funding to cover tents, sleeping bags, and other supplies.
Earlier this week, Scott vetoed the budget. A group of Democratic and Progressive party legislators, large enough to prevent the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto, have been working to put together a pragmatic solution to the motel crisis, as have advocates and service providers. The pressure appears to be moving the needle, but the first wave of mass state-sponsored un-sheltering will still go forward as scheduled—and there’s no guarantee that the termination of the program won’t happen in the end.
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Over the last two months, I have visited 16 hotels and met with around 1,000 people utilizing the program. The stories that I have collected—and shared with our state leaders—are a testament to the lifesaving role of the state’s emergency housing program. Motel guests include people on oxygen, people who are severely disabled, still recovering from recent surgeries, wearing defibrillators, and more. Some have finally found recovery from substance use disorders or stabilized their mental illness. Nearly 600 children and many pregnant people are staying in motels.
Cheri Rossi, an elderly recipient of the program who needs long-term care, became unhoused when her landlord would not stop water from pouring through light fixtures, provide reliable heating, and otherwise make her living conditions more humane. She recently spelled out her situation at a press conference.
“I think legislators need to know that I will be on the street. I will be without a caregiver, and I will die quickly or I will die slowly. That is what’s going to happen to me personally. It’s going to happen to a lot of people,” Rossi said.
Lawmakers still voted to take her shelter away.
Rebecca Duprey, a disabled mother of two children, one of whom is also disabled, was living in her car in a mall parking lot before I was able to help get her sheltered in a motel. Rebecca escaped domestic violence and has been on the run for years. She has a housing choice voucher, one of the most effective tools to end homelessness, but can’t find an apartment. She is not alone—four in five Vermont families with vouchers are unable to secure housing.
Darron Philips is in an electric wheelchair. His case worker found him outside in the winter several days after his chair had run out of power because he did not have somewhere to charge it. He told me, “It makes it hard when property managers don’t like [my chair] and they will throw you out for it.” Darron will be thrown back out on the street, this time by our state government, in July.
This is not my first fight. For more than two years, I’ve advocated to keep Vermonters staying in motels sheltered. In late fall 2021, that battle brought me to the capital. For 27 nights, Josh Lisenby, a Vermonter who had faced chronic homelessness for six years, and I slept on the steps of the statehouse to force our governor to accept federal funding and to shelter all people in need. It should have been an easy yes. Finally, on the 28th day, after many 19-degree nights—which took a severe toll on my health—the governor reinstated the program.
This session, I expected my party to use its super-majority to prevail over a governor who has long sought to end the emergency housing program, no matter the human or political consequences. Democrats vowed to take bold action to address the state’s housing crisis in the 2022 elections. In fact, they supported my housing message enthusiastically. So when the latest legislative session came around, I felt hopeful that we would finally build a responsible transition to permanent housing for Vermonters who have been reliant on motels for their survival.
Initially, I had one-on-one meetings with lawmakers behind the scenes and worked to try to help craft policies that would turn this dream into a reality. I did this on the assumption that a Democratic super-majority wouldn’t write a budget that would abruptly remove shelter from nearly 3,000 people.
But I was proven wrong because our legislature passed a budget that will do just that.
Sending children, disabled Vermonters, and pregnant women to live in cars and tents is the type of injustice we condemn in right-wing states. It is not a response that reflects the values of this state or my party. We have responded to this crisis with an unthinkable lack of humanity. If this happens in any other state, Vermonters organize and are outspoken about the injustice. We cry for their children. Who will cry for our children?
I am a lifelong Democrat. But I am also a proud single mom who has experienced financial hardship for the past 20 years. I have felt the scourge of poverty discrimination in my own life and during my gubernatorial campaign. I became involved in the Democratic Party because I believe that we are the party for the working class, the party that will support those most marginalized. I still believe that. I never thought that I would be in this position or this fight. My heart is broken. I cannot stand by as any of us, regardless of party, willfully abandon the people whom I ran to fight alongside.
Long after today, I will have to answer to myself whether I did enough to stop this state-orchestrated humanitarian crisis. The answer must be that I did everything I could. I will not let this state say that some Vermonters matter, while others’ lives are not even worth a tiny fraction of our state budget.
We are a state that is seen as a progressive haven, the home of Bernie Sanders. But we are also a state that just lined up nearly 3,000 people who are houseless and in poverty at the edge of a cliff and are about to push them off. I am far too proud of a Vermonter to be willing to let this go unchecked.