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Homeless people and allies hold signs during a July protest in Brattleboro.

Voices / Counterpoint

Time for demands — and dialogue

The belief that Brattleboro town government is already doing enough about homelessness is just another version of the belief that we don’t need to do very much at all

Matthew Vernon Whalan’s writing has appeared in The New York Journal of Books, CounterPunch, The Commons, The Berkshire Record, and dozens of other literary journals and newspapers. This piece was updated and expanded from remarks he made during public comments at the Aug. 6 meeting of the Brattleboro Selectboard.

Brattleboro

RE: “Selectboard is hardly insensitive to homelessness” [Viewpoint, Aug. 14]:

It is important that the Selectboard has ensured that porta-potties be placed downtown. We have finally decided as a community that homeless people, too, have the right to go to the bathroom. It’s an achievement that should be neither understated nor overstated.

However, I cannot help but feel disappointed and angry with this community for its unwillingness to listen effectively — or sometimes at all — and respond compassionately to the people in this town who are suffering the very most.

I recently completed a book on homelessness, as told to me by the homeless community of Brattleboro. I consider many of the homeless people of this community to be my closest friends. They have shared with me their life stories. I have shared with them my home. I have slept next to homeless people on hard, empty floors.

They have lost everything — their homes, their health, their most meaningful relationships.

They’ve been abused, both as children and adults.

They have no money and are usually in debt. They are poor people.

They are from all over the country.

They are constantly watched and harassed by police and other systems of law enforcement and surveillance.

They have nowhere to go. The only close bonds that most of them have are to other people who have lost everything and those who are trying to help but can’t.

I do not think of homeless people as “panhandlers,” which is just a fancy word for a beggar. The very deep and lonely suffering of the homeless community is not an abstraction to me.

Calling a homeless person a “panhandler” is like calling a prisoner “indoors-y.”

* * *

Recently, in between local protests for homeless rights, I reached out to the Selectboard on behalf of the Homeless Revolution, a grassroots movement started in Brattleboro by homeless people.

I had several specific questions regarding local no-trespass policies and practices, and I wanted to make sure these and several issues related to homelessness could be addressed at the last board meeting.

I received no formal response until the day of the meeting — after it was too late to set the agenda — and many of my questions remained unanswered still. I assume this was mostly due to time and scheduling constraints beyond the control of those I’d reached out to, and I remain in communication with local officials regarding these matters, in order to get more information about local policies and practices that impact homeless life.

Peter Elwell, our town manager, Selectboard Chair Brandie Starr, board member Daniel Quipp, and Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald have all been and continue to be particularly helpful and patient throughout this process of inquiry.

Also on the day of the Selectboard meeting, in the midst of my struggles to communicate with the board for a week and a half, an op-ed appeared by Tim Wessel in the Brattleboro Reformer.

The letter belittles and insults the Homeless Revolution, framing it as an attack on Selectboard, which it is not. The Homeless Revolution views the board as a hopeful and potential ally.

Anyone with access to Google should be able to quickly find in their research that the Revolution started in response to an incident of police harassment. The group has three demands based on three glaring problems in our community — none of which has been addressed by the Selectboard and some of which, over the years, have been made worse by it.

But the Homeless Revolution does not single out the Selectboard, was not started in response to the Selectboard, and hopes to work with the Selectboard on issues concerning homelessness going forward.

Wessel’s piece also does not discuss the content of the demands; rather, he suggests the demands should not exist without discussing them.

The first demand, which is understood to be somewhat aspirational, is housing.

The second, which should be realistic and obvious, is for the community to cease treating people experiencing homelessness with prejudice and bigotry.

The third is to welcome people without housing as a public voice in the local democratic process — also a short-term demand because it is, much like the second, asking very, very little.

I could devote an entire op-ed just to citing examples of the behavior and language in Selectboard meetings in recent years, when board members have repeatedly discussed homeless people as panhandlers, creating false equivalencies between the suffering of business owners and that of the homeless.

They have discussed every issue related to homeless life in the absence of homeless people (without exception).

They have consistently endorsed and called for an increase in the local police presence in town, a change that primarily impacts the homeless community.

And they have perpetuated stereotypes about the inherent danger and lawlessness of homeless people compared to other citizens.

* * *

The Selectboard has, nonetheless, done important and commendable work regarding the issue lately, most of which is touched on in Wessel’s piece.

Most of these concessions, however, are cosmetic — not in place to improve the issue, but to slow the rate at which the conditions of homeless life continue to worsen and the number of homeless people continues to grow.

The $100,000 to Groundworks to replace the old Seasonal Overflow Shelter (SOS), cited in Wessel’s piece, is important but not sufficient. The new shelter will not add meaningful capacity to the existing winter shelter; it is to replace it.

The move is absolutely necessary for the existence of the winter shelter, and it should be supported, but it will only increase the number of beds by one and should not be touted as a significant improvement.

The jobs program is important and well worth supporting, but we have to wait and see how well and to what degree it engages the homeless community.

For the most part, homeless people do not like Project CARE. They do not want to be judged — criminally or morally — for their drug use. Most of my sources do not know what Project CARE is. Many who do know about the initiative simply associate it with more interactions with police.

All of these solutions are important to mitigating the pace at which homelessness continues to grow and worsen. They will help and we should support them.

But they will most likely not decrease the population of homeless people in town or significantly mitigate their suffering.

* * *

The homeless community, despite all barriers, is beginning to take to the streets in Brattleboro to demand this work be done. They are becoming the engines of social change in this town. We can be proud of that and stand by them, or we can treat them like they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Finally, whether or not life anywhere is improving for anyone, there are usually two correct responses to the fatalism of optimists — those who always seem to tell us enough is being done and we are always heading in the right direction: “No, we can do better,” and, “Yes, and we can do better.”

Never have the people suffering the least done enough to hear and to help the people who are suffering the most.

Never has the struggle to be free been sufficiently pursued or achieved.

The belief that we are already doing enough and therefore the complaints of the homeless are misguided — or, to use Wessel’s word, “ironic” — is just another version of the belief that we don’t need to do very much at all.

As long as a suffering so extreme lives and sleeps outside in our world, which I presume it always will, those of us who live and sleep inside have unfinished work to do.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #523 (Wednesday, August 14, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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