Last Days at the Cortina: Homeless Left Adrift as Covid-Era Housing Ends

Photo for The Washington Post by John Tully.
The Cortina Inn, in Rutland, Vt., on June 22, 2023.

RUTLAND, Vt. – The phone call came on a Wednesday morning, startling him awake. That was how Keith Bradt learned that in a few hours, he would no longer have a place to live.

He quickly packed up the possessions in his hotel room into four boxes and a handful of bags. By 4 p.m., he was at his after-hours job cleaning offices. When he got off work at midnight, he planned to pitch a tent on the outskirts of town.

Bradt, 32, had been staying at the Cortina Inn in Rutland since last year, part of a pandemic-era initiative in Vermont to combat homelessness. It worked, but the federal funding had dried up. Bradt was one of about 800 people forced to leave hotels in the state in June.

Across the country, an expansion of federal aid during the pandemic allowed cities and states to make unprecedented use of hotels and motels to shelter unhoused people, part of a temporary sea change in how the nation treats some of its most vulnerable citizens.

In dozens of states, people experiencing homelessness were placed in rented hotel rooms, sometimes for months, but sometimes for far longer. A handful of states, notably California, began buying hotels and converting them into permanent shelters. Nearly all the programs to rent hotel rooms have ended or are winding down.

Perhaps no state went further than Vermont in making hotels the cornerstone of a bold bid to end homelessness there, putting about 80 percent of its unsheltered population into rented rooms that are designed for shorter stays.

Now the state has said it cannot afford to continue the program, which used more than $190 million in federal funding through April. But three years in, many at the Cortina Inn still have no permanent place to go. The hotel became home.

“I’m trying to work something out,” Bradt said. Thinking about the future brought on a debilitating feeling of anxiety. “I’m not sure where I’m going to go.”

Vermont’s experiment in providing hotels for the homeless offers a sobering lens into the difficult choices states are making as pandemic-era benefits end. Most other forms of housing aid through eviction moratoriums and rental assistance have already sunset.

Lawmakers here are deciding who gets kicked out from hotels first, at a time when high rents and a scarcity of affordable housing mean some will end up back on the streets. About 2,000 more people were due to leave hotels starting this month but were granted conditional extensions by the legislature, possibly until next year, after an uproar.

The experience in Vermont holds lessons for a country where homelessness is on the rise even after decades of efforts to eradicate it. While studies show health and other benefits to offering hotel rooms, the initiative also offers warnings. Absent a plan for what comes next, people can end up back where they started, without a stable place to live.

“It seems a lack of planning and a lack of prioritizing of that exit strategy has led to what is really the worst-case outcome,” where people are pushed out of hotel rooms without adequate alternatives, said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Bradt landed at the Cortina Inn after a cascade of misfortunes. His catering business collapsed during the pandemic, and he moved home to care for his ailing mother. She died in 2021. The landlord evicted Bradt last November before selling the property.

His 76-year-old grandmother was evicted from her apartment a few months earlier. They both ended up at the Cortina, where they shared a room. Under evolving state rules for dismantling the program, she could stay for now, due to her age. But Bradt could not.

Photo for The Washington Post by John Tully
The Cortina Inn in Rutland Vt., seen on June 22, 2023, is a former Holiday Inn off a busy state highway.

‘All being ripped away’

Upstairs at the Cortina on a recent afternoon, Jennifer MacLean was shuttling in and out of Room 265. Most of her belongings, including bags of clothes, an air fryer and a fan, were piled in the hallway. Her dog, a pit bull, was still inside.

The room had been her home for two years, during which she filled out forms, met with case workers and tried to find an affordable place to live. No luck, and now her time was up. Her boyfriend’s relative was paying for a week’s stay at a motel down the road. But “it is just delaying the inevitable,” said MacLean, 49. After that, she was unsure.

Alyssa Hepburn, a resident at the Cortina Inn in Rutland, Vt., on June 22, 2023, found shelter at the hotel after being evicted this year.
Alyssa Hepburn found shelter at the hotel after being evicted this year.

Downstairs, Alyssa Hepburn sat in what was once a meeting room off the hotel lobby, bouncing her leg nervously as she spoke. Only a few days remained until she was in the same situation as MacLean. “It is all being ripped away,” she said.

For Hepburn, 32, there was an additional irony. Before the pandemic, she used to work at this very hotel doing housekeeping and shifts on the front desk. Back then, it was a Holiday Inn. The plastic keys to its 150 rooms still say “enjoy your stay” and “open the possibilities.”

The Cortina is located just off a busy strip of state highway, next to a Hampton Inn, a Hannaford supermarket and a Dick’s Sporting Goods outlet. From a distance, it looks like any other chain hotel. But there is a private security vehicle parked outside and a general air of dilapidation inside. One entrance is locked shut. When school gets out, children file through the doors.

Anil Sachdev, one of the owners, bought the property in 2012. He first got into the hotel business in Vermont back in 1999 with a single motel in the state capital of Montpelier. Now he manages six, and they all house people experiencing homelessness under a deal with the state government.

When the pandemic began, the fear was so intense that “nobody wanted to house these people,” Sachdev said. He started by leasing one property for 21 days in the spring of 2020 with no inkling that this would become his business. The state paid an average of $148 a night for each hotel room in the program, according to an order issued by the governor in May.

While hotels have been used as short-term shelters in the past, what unfolded during the pandemic was on a different scale. Nearly $4 billion in coronavirus relief funds was allocated to aid the unhoused, including moving them out of crowded shelters and into hotels. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also began reimbursing states and localities for the cost of such stays during the coronavirus public health emergency.

It provided more than $5 billion in funding for projects aimed at sheltering people in individualized settings such as hotels, the agency said, including efforts in 41 states that specifically mentioned homeless populations. Those programs, from Louisiana to Washington, have largely ended.

Before the pandemic, Vermont had a small program to pay for motel and hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness, mostly in the frigid winter months. It used to serve about between 200 and 300 households, according to a report from the state auditor. By 2021, however, that number had grown to more than 2,000.

Vermont has the second-highest rate of homelessness per capita of any state, behind California. Thanks to the motel program, however, it has the lowest rate of unsheltered homelessness in the country at just 2 percent, according to the latest national data. The program also allowed the state to get an accurate count of its homeless population.

Hepburn never imagined she would become one of them. Until this spring, she had lived in her apartment for seven years. Then a new landlord evicted her without cause. Her deadline to leave the Cortina was June 26. After that, everything would unravel.

With no place to live, Hepburn could not keep her job at McDonald’s. Her 14-year old daughter and 11-year old son, who stay with their father, could not visit her several times a week and every other Saturday. She did not share her situation with them. “You don’t tell your kids they’re not going to be able to see mom,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

Then there was her 20-month-old son. The state had placed him in foster care a few months earlier, and she was diligently working to regain custody with weekly visits. At the last minute, however, just before her deadline to leave the hotel, Hepburn won a reprieve with the help of a social worker: Her prior eviction and her younger son’s situation meant she should not have been in the category of people being forced out.

Homelessness experts said the use of hotels and motels to house people has staved off scenarios like the one Hepburn was facing, giving vulnerable people a sense of stability and a way to avoid life-threatening risks. That view is supported by research conducted during the expansion of hotel shelters during the pandemic, initially viewed as a public health measure to reduce infections.

Studies found that people in hotel shelters in San Francisco made far fewer visits to hospital emergency rooms. People in a similar program in Washington state showed improved health and well-being. Several cities and states began exploring ways to buy hotels and convert them into long-term shelters.

California launched a $736 million initiative called “Project Homekey” to turn properties including hotels and motels into permanent or interim housing for the homeless. Oregon, Minnesota and Vermont launched similar programs.

Deborah Padgett, a professor at Silver School of Social Work at New York University who studies homelessness, conducted a small qualitative study of people moved to hotels during the pandemic. She described the results as “revelatory.” The participants, used to sleeping on the streets or in dormitory-like shelters, saw improvements in “health, sleep, personal hygiene, privacy, safety, nutrition, and overall well-being.”

Photo for The Washington Post by John Tully
Elliot Avery was sleeping in his car before he went to the hotel.

Elliott Avery, 61, experienced those benefits firsthand. He had been sleeping in his car for several months after his landlord sold the house he was renting. A friend suggested he call the Vermont housing help line, and he was put in a room at the Cortina earlier this year. “We need the program. We really do,” said Avery. “It is so hard right now.”

He works in the kitchen of a nearby university but has not been able to find an apartment. A case worker at a housing nonprofit was trying to help with affordable housing. “She said, ‘Elliott, it is the wait list. Just hang in there, keep your head up.'”

The morphing of hotels into shelters has not been without problems. A report to the Vermont legislature last year described complaints from surrounding communities, which saw an increase in calls to police and ambulance services. Meanwhile, residents reported unsanitary conditions in the rooms, from bedbugs to insufficient plumbing, even as hotel owners received millions of dollars from the state.

In Rutland, after three years of the program, many locals have a sense of “compassion fatigue,” Mayor Mike Doenges said. The hotels in the area that turned into shelters are no longer available for tourism and saw a significant jump in visits from the police, he said. The impact extended to the public library, where staff reported visits from people staying at the hotels with mental health issues that they felt ill-equipped to handle. “It is just an unsurmountable number of people who need assistance,” Doenges said.

‘A big mess for the city’

On June 1, a group of several hundred people, mainly adults with no children, began to exit the hotels. For those unable to stay with a friend or relative, there was nowhere to go. Most traditional shelters were full already. “It is incredibly sad to be in this situation and have so little capacity to absorb the need,” said Libby Bennett of Groundworks Collaborative, which runs two shelters in Brattleboro, a city in southern Vermont.

Groundworks was one of several nonprofits that is handing out tents to people leaving the hotels. So far it has distributed 50, Bennett said. In Rutland, the ownership of the Cortina gave everyone who was required to leave at the start of the month an additional two weeks, plus a few more days here and there.

A mass exit on a single day would have been “a big mess for the city,” Sachdev said. Still, the subsequent expulsions led to a rise in local encampments, Doenges said, including one behind a restaurant and another on a city bike path. Around 2,000 people, mostly families, the elderly and the disabled, remain in hotels across Vermont. They, too, were scheduled to leave starting in July.

But in late June, the Democratic-controlled Vermont legislature reached a deal, backed by its Republican governor, to extend their stays potentially until next April, provided certain conditions were met. They included accepting alternate forms of housing, if offered, and contributing 30 percent of a person’s income to the cost of their stay.

“A program of this size and nature will take time to transition,” said Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families. The legislature is “providing us more time to be able to work with these households.”

The agency did not respond to a request for data on how many people had left the program and which types of housing they obtained. The coming months will reveal whether the state can fulfill its promise to create additional forms of shelter and more affordable housing.

Meanwhile, advocates noted that the deal did nothing to help the people recently pushed out of the hotels. They also warned that the new conditions will result in slow-motion expulsions. “Pushing people off a cliff three at a time until we have forced thousands, is still a humanitarian crisis, and it is still pushing people off a cliff,” said Brenda Siegel, a housing activist and former Democratic candidate for governor.

Back at the Cortina, it was another day of waiting. Curtis Corse, 46, has lived there with his two daughters, ages 9 and 16, and their two cats, since April. His monthly disability payments are their only income. For about a year, he has been on two separate waiting lists for affordable housing. The Cortina does not feel safe for people with kids, he said. Sometimes people use drugs in the hallways. One resident sits outside drinking most days and starts fights.

The wallpaper in his room is peeling off, there are spots of black mold in one corner, and the bathtub takes hours to drain. Most days, he can be found outside, smoking and pacing in a copse of trees right next to the hotel entrance. At least Corse was not one of the group that was forced out in June. Otherwise, “I would be in a panic right now,” he said. “An absolute panic.”