What if it suddenly happened to you?

Vermonters need to understand that everyone who is homeless has been on a unique journey of survival, with lives infinitely harder than those who are housed can possibly imagine

BRATTLEBORO — Pause for a moment and imagine yourself on the streets of the largest and most expensive city in America. Ask yourself: Could I survive a week on the street? Where would I sleep? Where would I eat?

I am a homeless resident of Brattleboro, living at Groundworks on South Main Street. I am uniquely qualified to talk about homelessness nationwide, having been homeless in four states since 2018: Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and - of course - Vermont.

I was living in a homeless shelter in New Jersey (and paying rent) while working full time, but when I lost that job, I became homeless from March through October of last year in New York City.

I survived on the street in New York City for more than six months before returning to Brattleboro. I would like to share with you what a day being homeless in New York City looked like for me.

* * *

Before I ended up in a shelter on 114th Street in the basement of a Presbyterian church near Columbia University, I slept on the sidewalk outside Saint Francis of Assisi, a Roman Catholic church near Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan.

There are more than 8 million people in New York City. Sleeping on the sidewalk in late March was not easy. I would wake up on the frigid concrete and feel immense gratitude for being alive another day.

At exactly 7 o'clock, the Franciscan friars of Saint Francis of Assisi would serve breakfast on the street, which in cold weather included hot instant oatmeal and a hot cup of coffee.

Following my morning breakfast, I would briskly walk along 31st Street and up 5th Avenue to attend Mass at Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Once there, I'd light candles for my deceased parents. My father died from liver failure when I was 12. My mother, originally from Brooklyn, died in a house fire when I was 21, here in Vermont.

Lighting candles for my parents brought me solace. Sometimes, an Italian man - who recognized me and knew I was homeless - would slip me some cash after Mass, and often he would give me a little breakfast sandwich to eat. He would hug me and say my name in Italian: “Tomasso.” The cash he gave me was enough to buy maybe another cup of coffee somewhere along the way in my morning routine.

* * *

After sitting in Saint Patrick's Cathedral in contemplative prayer, I'd walk down to Washington Square Park at the foot of 5th Avenue and, weather pending, I might spend the latter part of my morning chatting with students from New York University on park benches about the literature they were reading - or, on the rare occasion, playing chess in the southwest corner of the park. I would pass through Washington Square in the heart of Manhattan's Greenwich Village several times during the day.

But what about lunch? Free meals are served at The Bowery Mission, not far from Old Saint Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street, where I would also go and attend daily Mass and pray.

My spiritual life was nourishment enough until I could eat another meal at 1 o'clock, after which they served another meal for dinner at 5 o'clock.

If I happened to walk down Broadway instead, I could find a free meal outside Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton is buried, opposite Wall Street, or if I had lingered in Midtown, free lunches were also served at a Presbyterian church on 55th Street off 5th Avenue (but only on Mondays and Wednesdays).

Knowing where to get a free meal and at what times allowed me to structure my day accordingly. I did a lot of walking up and down Manhattan Island just to get a free meal.

But let's say you didn't know where to go to get a free meal in New York City. What would you do? Would you panhandle?

On the rare occasion, I did. I would sit in Times Square or outside Saint Patrick's Cathedral with a cup for change and pray the Rosary. Once someone dropped a $5 bill in my cup and said to me, “Please pray for Florian.”

And so, I did.

* * *

This brings me back to Brattleboro.

Why is there so much stigma surrounding the topic of homelessness here? Just as New York City has a twin housing crisis and a homelessness crisis, so too does Brattleboro.

Homelessness can happen to anyone, at any time, for a variety of reasons.

Have you ever lived paycheck to paycheck? Been hospitalized with a sudden illness? Lost a job or lacked a support network with family and friends? These are the very situations that can lead to someone becoming homeless.

Ask yourselves this: “Do I talk about homelessness at the dinner table in my home? Do I talk about homelessness in the workplace or at school?” Imagine yourself homeless in Brattleboro, and ask yourself: How would you survive?

Imagine yourself homeless anywhere across America. Now imagine the plight of those who are homeless in our own backyard.

How could you choose to help?

* * *

The problems facing New York City are the same problems facing Brattleboro. We must expand our consciousness and see homelessness as a truly national epidemic. If I ever lost my bed at Groundworks here in town, where would I go? What would I do as a homeless person?

Believe it or not, as terrifying as it sounds to some, I would return to the streets of New York City. There are more resources to help the homeless in the Five Boroughs than there are here, in Brattleboro.

I know how to survive there. Could you?

Challenge yourself. Imagine you are homeless on the streets for a week and see how you would survive.

* * *

The homeless deserve our respect, not our condescension. Their lives (and my own) are infinitely harder than those who are housed can possibly imagine.

Vermonters need to understand that everyone who is homeless has been on a unique journey of survival. What if it suddenly happened to you? Would you hold a cardboard sign asking for assistance? You'd be surprised how quickly you would if you needed to.

Do not judge the homeless. Rather, let's have serious discussions about homelessness in Brattleboro. Homelessness has no jurisdiction. Citizens of Brattleboro, of Windham County, and the Green Mountain State would do well to see homelessness here as part of a larger national issue.

Vermont ranks 49th in population; only Wyoming has fewer people. Are we responding to the needs of the indigent population in Vermont adequately?

If you want to walk a mile in my shoes, spend a week homeless in Manhattan and come back to Vermont. You may find the experience illuminating - and you may come back to Brattleboro with a new respect for the homeless population here.

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