“That was all I really had” : Homeless in 2020, pt.2

This article was written by Eva Goodwin, of U-32 High School in East Montpelier. It is the second in a three-part series about the issues surrounding homelessness in 2020, from the Underground Workshop, VTDigger’s new platform for student journalism. The first installment is here.

This story presents one housing-insecure woman’s experience receiving support from the state and other organizations, policies framed in a broader context by this VTDigger article from December 9.

The Hilltop Inn in Berlin, where Brooke Rivera spent most of the early months of the pandemic. Photo by Eva Goodwin

Brooke Rivera wakes around 6:30 am most days to feed her 9-month-old son, then puts him down for a nap around 10. Once he falls asleep she can move around her apartment to do dishes and clean her living space. She spends most of her day taking care of her son. 

Rivera is a 22-year-old mother in Barre, Vermont, who recently moved into transitional housing after being homeless and changing between motel rooms provided by the state throughout the pandemic.

“It was hard living in a hotel room with just my infant,” she said. “You don’t have much privacy, you can’t really go anywhere unless you want to step outside and get some fresh air.”

“That was all I really had, it was just really hard.”

Before she was pregnant with her son, Rivera spent a couple nights at a homeless shelter, Good Samaritan Haven in Barre. She has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, which puts her at greater risk for getting sick, especially with Covid 19. She was able to be moved to a motel because of this. 

Good Samaritan Haven in Barre was one of the shelters that had to close down and move all its residents to motels nearby, which was paid for by the state. The motels the state rented in Central Vermont are the Econo Lodge in Montpelier, the Pierre in Barre, the Hilltop in Berlin, the Hollow in Barre, and the Budget Inn in Barre. Rivera stayed at the Hilltop Motel in Berlin for most of this spring. 

Mark LaRouche, the assistant housing manager at Good Samaritan Haven, runs oversees the population at the Econo Lodge and lived there from the beginning of the pandemic until summertime so he could be there 24/7. 

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“Essentially they were just given just a hotel room to do their thing,” LaRouche said. “A lot of them took advantage of the fact that they had their own space, so they enjoyed being by themselves, something at the normal shelter you cannot really do.”

The Econo Lodge, one of the motels where the state provided housing during the pandemic. Photo by Eva Goodwin

Normally at Good Samaritan Haven all residents must leave during the day. However, because of the pandemic and because many public buildings were closed down, giving these people less places to go, it was decided that everyone could stay at the motels during the day.

The isolation was hard for Rivera.

“Being stuck in one room, you can’t really go anywhere or cook that well because there’s no stove or kitchen,” she said. “So you’re pretty much using a microwave for all your meals.” 

This required certain sacrifices. “Since the virus, I’ve had to put everything aside and eat whatever I have available to me,” Rivera said. “I just have to suck it up and eat because it’s something that will keep me from going hungry.” 

Theresa Fanell is the donor manager at Good Samaritan Haven.

“This is a population that’s pretty socially isolated to begin with,” she said, “and then to have this on top of it it really has an impact on morale, and that sense of community that we tried to create for people.” 

Despite the state’s efforts and progress towards higher capacities and housing for the homeless, there are still many people whose needs cannot be met. 

The state still allows many people to live at hotels such as the Econo Lodge, and the Hilltop. Good Samaritan Haven is now opened at  half capacity, which is around 15 people total.

“There’s a lot more than that in Washington county that needs housing, frankly,” Fanell said.  “But we just don’t have the capacity to serve all the people.” 

Luckily for Brooke Rivera, she was able to get in touch with the Family Center and Capstone. The Family Center is a state-designated parent and child center that works with families to give them education, housing, grants etc. Capstone is a central Vermont resource for providing low interest loans, heating assistance and many other supports to help put people into better situations. 

 Thanks to Capstone and the Family Center, Rivera is able to have more space to live and cook with her child and not feel so isolated and trapped. 

“They helped me find a place for transitional housing,” Rivera said, “so that it would be a better situation for me and my son.”

Transitional housing is given by grants to families depending on their circumstance. If an apartment has been up for rent and no one has taken it then it is often used for this short term housing given by the state to people like Rivera.

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Usually a person can only stay in these transitional apartments for a certain amount of time; however, because of the pandemic, Rivera has been allowed to stay beyond the normal time frame. 

Rivera enjoys living in transitional housing.  “I can actually cook for myself,” she said, “and be able to have more of a positive relationship with my son instead of feeling closed in everyday.”

Having a child has been an important part of Rivera’s experience throughout these months. 

“It makes everything somewhat easier,” she said, “because you’re not alone, and they bring a lot of joy to your life.”  

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