BRATTLEBORO—I recently interviewed Melvin Harris, who was born in Birmingham, Ala., and he’s been in the area for about 10 years. He worked for a while at C & S Wholesale Grocers and Vermont Bread Company, but then he found himself homeless, living in abandoned houses and sleeping under bridges.
But now he is a resident of the Great River Terrace, a supportive housing community on Putney Road on the site of the former Lamplighter Motel at 1336 Putney Rd.
Great River Terrace opened in June 2018 as a project of the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust, which works with Groundworks Collaborative and Health Care and Rehabilitation Services (HCRS) to provide structure, support, and backup for families and individuals who have experienced homelessness, recognizing that the road back to stability in life is not a smooth one.
Melvin Harris’s journey shows one such struggle.
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Wendy O’Connell: In your early years back in Alabama, you lived with your mom and your dad and two siblings, and you had a pretty interesting life. You did a lot of traveling.
Melvin Harris: Yes. My mother was in the military. My father was a chef. So we traveled the country and the world as I was growing up. We went to a lot of different places, and I learned a lot of different things. So that was a pretty good experience.
My mom went into the reserves, so we moved back to Birmingham in early- to mid-’80s. At the time, that wasn’t the best place. In a matter of months, drugs pretty much destroyed my family.
So things went from being really good to really bad. I stayed there for a while with my father. He became an addict. I was in the streets and would see him rarely.
My older brother eventually paid for my plane ticket to come to Massachusetts to live with my mother, which he thought would be a better environment.
So I came up to Springfield, Mass.
My mother was addicted to drugs as well. At 10, I was introduced very early to the streets. My mother tried to do the best that she could, but I ended up getting in trouble with small things.
My mother met a gentleman from Greenfield, Mass. Things changed drastically. It was more of a suburban area — better schools.
Back in the ’90s, I was one of the first black kids in town. Things got better in Greenfield, and my mother started getting sober. But my time living in Springfield had already gripped me.
So when I moved to Greenfield, here I am, I’m thinking I’m cool and wanting to both play football and hang out with the tough kids. Hanging out with the tough kids got me in trouble.
I ended up going to prison for five years when I was 17.
W.O.: You’re 17 and they sent you to prison?
M.H.: Yeah. Five years in state prison in Massachusetts. And there, as a young man at 17, you’re around a lot of grown men, different types of people. You’re going to be a victim or you’re going to be the one taking advantage.
So that’s what I became. I was a rough kid anyway. I was very strong, and I was willing to fight or go to whatever extreme it took. And you had to do that in order to survive.
And in prison, I did some college courses, but there weren’t many classes for reintegration to help a young man reintegrate into society.
W.O.: Were you able to continue your education?
M.H.: Well, once I was released, I was bitter. When I came home, my family was gone. It was just me.
My mother had moved. They went to active duty in Korea. My father was in Birmingham, and at that time we were estranged. I remembered my father as a drug addict, a bad man, a tough guy. But I didn’t know the changes that he had been making in his life. We talked, and I found out that he’s been clean probably for 25 years now.
One day, he went to a homeless shelter in Birmingham with his best friend. He woke up the next day, and his best friend was gone. He stayed.
He’s now a caseworker at that very shelter. He runs two recovery programs for men to help them get out of jail and to get back on their feet. He goes around on Sundays, he picks up the homeless, takes them the church. He does tons of things. He’s a deacon at his church.
So when I go down there and I see that now that gives me the hope.
W.O.: That is an interesting way to have your father as a role model, that he was able to turn his life around, all the way around.
M.H.: Right. No doubt about it. If he can do it, I can.
W.O.: And your mom?
M.H.: She passed away some years ago from liver disease. But before she went, she was sober, she lived a great life, traveled the world, did great things. She loved the military. So she did good. No regrets.
W.O.: You talked about getting out of prison and getting clean and getting jobs and that kind of thing. And then how strong the pull is and how hard it is not to relapse, depending on your environment and many other factors.
M.H.: Well, once I left prison, I didn’t know anything. All I knew was defense. Respect. And if anyone crossed those lines, then they’d have to pay in the extreme. For me, it was either all or nothing. Because in prison, there is no in-between. So I did that for a while.
My parents were addicts. I have seen my mother use, get high. I used to say that I’d never do that ever — like, never ever.
But then years later, I was getting out of prison and smoking crack, too. And it was shameful, degrading. And I always thought that I was a better person than that.
But things add up: in my case, depression, loneliness, abandonment. Drugs gave me an escape. I just stopped caring about myself.
As time went on, I got in more trouble. I was going to jail all the time. When I was in jail I had three hots and a cot.
And from being in prison for so long, I got used to someone telling me to get up, someone telling me to eat dinner, someone telling me to do this.
All things that I had to redo or relearn.
W.O.: And were you getting support, Melvin, in times when you when you were out from being incarcerated?
M.H.: No. At the time, it was you’re out, you fend for yourself.
And since the prison was in Greenfield, It was like it was my home anyway. I went to school with a lot of the correctional officers, I knew all the people. So even when I was in jail so often, they knew me and knew I wasn’t a bad person, that I wasn’t out there hurting people.
I was an addict. I supported my habit. And I was typically in jail for violation of probation. I would tell cops: “Your job is a police officer. My job is a robber. If you catch me, you catch me.”
I’ve never had a problem with the police and they’ve never had any issues as well. Even to move into the place where I live, police officers, probation officers wrote letters of recommendation stating my character.
When I’m sober.
W.O.: How did you get to Brattleboro?
M.H.: I met this young lady from Vermont, and she was hanging out with the wrong crowd. I was as well.
She was lonely and in the wrong place and asked to stay with me. I was using and I’m, like, “Yeah. But listen. I use drugs. I don’t want you to try to convince me not to. If you do, you’re going to have to leave.”
So she just sat there for about probably a month and just sat there. She didn’t do any drugs. She just sat there and just said, “You know, you’re better than this.”
One day, we hopped in her Toyota, and she drove me out to this long river. And we slept out there, just me and her, for about two months. So we grew a bond. I’d rock her to sleep every hour, I’d get up, turn the car off because of carbon monoxide. We’d take baths in the river.
And we were both struggling with certain things. And then she said, “Well, you know, there’s this place called the Lamplighter. It’s not the best but you know you’ll be safer than where you are now."
So moving to the Lamplighter wasn’t the best place but it was my start. I got away from the very bad situation that I was in. She would go to work, and I wouldn’t leave, because I knew that if I did, I could find drugs. And we went from the Lamplighter and we got an apartment.
We eventually got married. I got sober for a number of years. We had beautiful children and the Montessori school here. I’d go to the Moose Club in Bellows Falls to play poker. I was having a great time, and things were really good.
But I stopped taking my medication. I ended up leaving my family, which was a very big mistake.
But I didn’t think that I deserved it, or I thought that I deserved better.
W.O.: And that’s really key, isn’t it. In terms of going back to what you know or to the life that you knew and also having that inculcated in you over the years. That’s a really hard one.
M.H.: My wife and I, when we were together and married and I was sober, we would go downtown and see people that were homeless. I was giving people rides, picking up people hitchhiking, trying to give back. I had just found my family and that’s what was my happiness.
But I didn’t get a foundation. So every day, my demons were there waiting, and I wasn’t ready.
It started out small once a week. Then a couple of times a week. I wasn’t coming home, and my wife put up with a lot. I would spend all of our money. We had nothing. We were in a very bad place.
But by the grace of God, someone called [the Department of Children and Families]. At first, I fought them. But what happened with them getting involved is that I stopped fighting. Because I was tired of fighting.
W.O.: And through DCF, is that how you came to Great River Terrace?
M.H.: They linked us to a lot of programs. Psychological programs for us, early education for our children, tutoring, housing, support. We’d met people through them that we would have never met before.
So we worked with DCF, and they worked with us. We weren’t perfect, but they knew that we were trying and eventually we went on about our way.
I would go back and say hi to them. They also wrote letters of recommendation for me. That’s huge.
W.O.: And now you’re at Great River Terrace, are you able to take advantage of a lot of the resources there?
M.H.: All of them. I moved in on Aug. 1 after being homeless, not knowing where I was going to be living, not knowing if I could eat, not knowing if anyone cared. I didn’t have the courage to to ask for money. So I was always doing other things.
I didn’t believe it when the people at Great River Terrace said, “Hey, we chose you.” I said, “Listen, my name is Melvin Harris. You guys need to go back and do some research. You guys got the wrong guy, man. Don’t do this.”
So they really like “No, we’re going to show you your place.” We went there. They helped furnish the television, a bed, a table, some dishware. And it was bare at first, I was lonely, I didn’t feel as if it was mine. I thought that someone was gonna come take it. And they would just tell me, “No, man, listen: this is yours if you want it.”
And then I get to meet the people that are in the community. We have similar backgrounds, so we all have a great respect and understanding for each other’s bad times, good times. So it’s a lot of sharing, caring, you know, are-you-OKs, it’s-all-rights, just-get-back-ups.
I was there for like a month and a half, two months. I didn’t think that I deserved it, so I left — during one of the coldest months of the year. I’d sleep in abandoned buildings here in town.
My social workers found me. They said, “Hey, listen, people care. Just come home. There’s no judgment. Just come back. This is your place. You don’t have to stay in the streets, Melvin. You have a place to live, to sleep, to eat.” So after about two weeks, I returned. And there was no judgment.
People come up from Turning Point. We have different classes: drug classes, wellness classes, grief classes. We have a huge day room with a flat-screen TV, a computer, a kitchen. So we always have dinners there, game nights. There’s always someone there to help support you.
W.O.: It’s a real community.
M.H.: Yeah. And I’ve never had that. For so long I’ve been on the fringes of society.
I want to meet different people and learn different things. I want to help change people’s perception of individuals who are drug addicts, are homeless, or have mental illness. Some are very intelligent, some are very kind, some are very good people. Circumstances are very, very common.
It’s very easy. It can happen to anyone, you know.
W.O.: Those of us who live in Brattleboro are increasingly aware of the homeless community in town. And it is a community in town, part of our town. Everyone is part of our town.
M.H.: In regards to homelessness and mental illness. I attend a group every month at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. I see homeless people as a community in Brattleboro — this is where people are. We’re trying to come up with ideas to take away the stigma that people are undesired or don’t have family or aren’t loved. And I think we’ll come up with some ideas to try to let the community at large know that we’re working on it.
W.O.: And your talents I think are really coming to the fore with that kind of thing. Talents that you might not even realize.
M.H.: Or that I did but I thought, being shy and embarrassed, that no one would want to hear me or see me.
I know the people in the street. I know that no one wants to be hungry. I know no one wants to be an addict. No one. I didn’t want to be an addict. I still don’t want to be an addict.
I fight with it every day — when I’m depressed, when I’m alone, when I’m happy. At the same time, I’ve been sober for a couple of weeks now and I’m in the moment.
In a matter of five minutes, that urge can pass. You do something different: run, scream, yell, do whatever you have to do. Just get there.
W.O.: Yeah. I think that there’s a lot to be said for knowing that you can come home again. And to know you’re going home not only to warmth and food but to a community, and all of these different supports that are coming in.
M.H.: Right. God forbid, relapse is part of recovery sometimes — for some people more than others. But at Great River Terrace they tell us you’re not always successful but just know that you have GRT. Come home. No judgment. We’ll talk about it. We’ll try to troubleshoot it. We’re not gonna say you’re a bad person. We’re not going to say, “Hey, that’s screwed up.”
Some might take advantage of that. But I believe that if you give an individual a chance, trust, friendship, kindness — it can go a long way.
In a matter of six months, my life is turned around. I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know if I wanted to live or die. And today I’m here. I am clean, dressed nice, took a shower.
And my kids are happy. I’m happy.