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'A situation we have to adapt to': Flooding's impact on Vermonters experiencing homelessness

 A photo of a man in a red shirt and baseball cap, looking into the distance
Brian Stevenson and Kyle Ambusk
Vermont Public
Thomas Widmer is among the Vermonters evacuated from a Berlin homeless shelter as floodwaters rose Monday night.

The historic flooding that damaged homes and roads across the state early this week also forced homeless shelters in Barre and Berlin to evacuate.

Good Samaritan Haven provides shelter, food, and support to those experiencing homelessness in central Vermont. They have three shelters located in Barre City, Barre Town, and Berlin.

Rick DeAngelis, the co-director of Good Samaritan Haven, was at the Berlin shelter on Monday when water levels started to rise along Route 302. The building borders a floodplain.

He said emergency services arrived at the shelter around 6:30 p.m. Monday, telling staff and guests to evacuate.

“They just showed up out of the blue," DeAngelis said. "And they walked onto the property and they said, ‘You guys gotta get out of here as soon as possible.'"

As the water started to cover Route 302, emergency services transported about 30 guests to the American Red Cross shelter in the Barre Auditorium.

“They managed to get that bus out of the property, which was not a small path, because by that time, I'd say that the water was, you know, 3 to 4 feet deep in the middle of the road,” DeAngelis said.

Among the shelter guests evacuated was 76-year-old Thomas Widmer. He says he's lived in Vermont for pretty much all his life, and had never seen anything like this.

"It just blew me away how quick the water can come up," Widmer said.

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DeAngelis stayed in Berlin to keep an eye on the building. He said water continued to rise before it receded around 11 p.m. Monday.

“Every hour I would check the water, and it was coming up higher and higher and higher,” he said. “Probably about 12 feet away from the lowest set from some of the rooms, and I was thinking, 'What the heck am I going to do if it reaches the doors?'"

Good Samaritan Haven’s other two shelters in Barre City and Barre Town were also evacuated to the Barre Auditorium, about 50 guests in total.

According to a press release on Tuesday from Good Samaritan Haven, the shelter’s shuttle bus was caught in high water at the intersection of Main St. and Route 62 in Barre. The bus was abandoned and totaled.

The press release noted the Barre and Berlin shelters sustained damage and they were unsure when they would reopen. DeAngelis hoped the Barre location would welcome guests Wednesday.

 A van stands in a flood street. People behind the fan wade through the water.
Julie Bond
The Good Samaritan Haven's van stands abandoned before being swept away at the intersection of Main St. and Route 62 in Barre on June 10.

In the long-term, DeAngelis emphasized how those experiencing homelessness feel the effects of climate change, like this flooding event, in high volumes.

On Sunday, when it became clear that the storm would be severe in the coming days, DeAngelis said Good Samaritan Haven went to known camping sites around central Vermont and warned folks to leave flood-prone areas.

“We were particularly concerned about that population, because they tend to cluster or they tend to be near rivers and floodway areas,” he said. “Those are some of the safer places to be, that people don't bother you and so forth.”

DeAngelis noted the systemic issues that make those experiencing homelessness vulnerable to the dangers of flooding.

“Most of the unsheltered people are hanging out around rivers because that's the land that other wealthier people would never build on or hang around, or whatever. So by their very desperate poverty, they are at risk of being impacted by flooding,” he said.

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There were about 400 homeless individuals in central Vermont as of December 2022, DeAngelis told WCAX at the time.

In Chittenden County, the Committee on Temporary Shelter helps people experiencing homelessness by providing day stations and overnight shelters and distributing items such as camping supplies to those living outdoors. The COTS shelters were unaffected during this week’s storm.

COTS Development Director Rebekah Mott said the best way to support those experiencing homelessness during natural disasters is to donate both money and supplies to local organizations.

Widmer, one of the shelter evacuees in Berlin, says this week's flooding has not been an easy situation.

"But it's a situation that we have to adapt to, just like we have to adapt to homelessness," he said.

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