BRATTLEBORO — It's very difficult to talk about homeless people without seeming overly idealistic or fatalistic. Or, worse, to seem just clueless.
Even the right phrase: homeless, houseless, homeless-by-choice, housing challenged, couch surfing, tent city-ing. To bastardize Leo Tolstoy, "every homeless person is homeless in his, her, and/or their own way."
Since I live downtown, I've developed a passing relationship with several people who live downtown - on the street during the day and wherever they can at night.
One of them, Kenny, graduated from Amherst College a few years after I did and tends to be floridly manic. (I tend to just be mildly manic.) Whenever I run into him, he's always "just been looking" for me and can't wait to drown me in whatever's currently pouring forth from the top of this head.
At one point he spent some time up close and personal with the Dalai Lama, so he thinks it'd be fun to go mano a mano with me in the who's-most-enlightened department. Not knowing whether that's a blessing or a curse, I let him decide. Besides, anytime I "get him," as he puts it, he says he was testing me and then starts mumbling phrases in perfect guttural Tibetan.
Kenny usually has money and "perfectly good" food that supermarkets have thrown out, along with some "incredibly useful" items that he's come upon here or there.
I shouldn't put those phrases in quotes. He recently gave me a classic antique school globe light he found in a dumpster. I'd been looking for one for years. He sometimes asks me for coffee money but only when he pats his pockets and realizes that, while he has many pockets, he doesn't have any money in them. In that case, he always promises to pay me back double.
Sometimes we split a muffin.
* * *
Jake tells me the best stories about why he needs money. Usually it's $18 for Suboxone or $19 for a hotel room. Sometimes it's because he has a place to go where he has a job and he just needs bus money.
A while back, I knew the money was for hard drugs - not that it was my business. But something about his affect has changed. So I think he's sticking to the Suboxone. He says he's been turned down three times for Medicaid and, if he can't get the Suboxone, he'll be "tempted" to try that "other stuff." I'm still getting to the bottom of why homeless addicts have to pay for their Suboxone.
Jake's girlfriend usually hangs back suspiciously or shyly, but she always smiles and says thank you when I give him money. She has some form of cancer, and he says she doesn't have enough money for the regular medicine she needs because she's not on her dad's insurance anymore and she doesn't qualify for Medicaid.
A lot of their stories don't quite make sense to me. But the feeling is probably mutual. (It probably doesn't make sense to them when I say I only have a few bucks and pull out a wallet that clearly has more.)
* * *
Sebastian and his girlfriend were staying near the railroad tracks for most of the winter. I could see their tent from my third-floor apartment. One day he told me they'd had a raccoon on the roof and it had really freaked his girlfriend out. For some reason, I had never given him money before. But I gave him some that day.
Sebastian's from Florida. When I found out I said, "What the f- you doing up here?" We looked at each other and said, in unison: "A girl."
I haven't seen him in a while, and Jake told me he and his girlfriend left town.
There's a good chance they'll be back.
* * *
And then there's my friend Melvin. I could write a book about Melvin. We talk quite a bit and, sometimes, when he's not accusing me of "talking that stupid white shit again," he'll say something that gives me pause and when I go home I write it on my whiteboard. Like when he told me, "We forget to think and think not to forget."
Melvin's business strategy is similar to that of anyone raising money for a struggling nonprofit. Which, in this case, is himself.
First, you reach out to prospective donors - "cultivate relationships," a consultant would call it. After a few "asks," you might get a small donation. A little more the next time. Until you've achieved the perfect blend of goodwill and generosity - with touches of guilt and self-righteousness as needed.
Soon, your donor will be making an unspoken (perhaps unrealized) pledge of weekly or monthly contributions until, eventually, they take part in the annual fund drive.
Fortunately, in Melvin's case, at least I won't ever be asked to be on the Board of Directors.
As I remember, the first time I met Melvin - around 2017 or 2018 - he didn't ask for anything. He just appeared alongside me on the sidewalk out of nowhere, saying "Uh huh, uh huh" or "Well, all right, all right." Those are his two basic greetings - either of which makes you feel you're on the same page. Even if you suspect you're reading different books. Or at least in different translations.
Soon, he's walking along as if he happened to be going where you're going. Just when you think he's about to ask you for something, at least a light or a cigarette, he slowly dips and turns his sinewy body and rolls it up until he's facing the other direction - a poor man's Michael Jackson move - walking away with a "catch you later," that feels like a promise you've asked him to make. Then he'll give a little laugh like the two of you just completed a perfect basketball pick-and-roll. You're on the same team.
Our relationship developed slowly. Within a year or two, he had me up to regular $5 donations to the cause. Maybe I got away with singles occasionally.
Then he went away for a while. I'd say it was two years; he says nine months. Regardless, when I saw him ambling down the street towards me again, I had to admit I had kind of missed him. The feeling was mutual. We gave each other big hugs - me, because Melvin is endlessly entertaining, and him because his "white daddy" was still in town.
Melvin doesn't drink coffee. He also doesn't do hard drugs. He drinks bad beer and smokes pot. Pretty much all day. But slowly. Like, homeopathically. Although by seven or eight, he might seem a little drunk or stoned - or both.
Melvin also never uses cardboard signs. He's not asking for a handout. He's inviting you to have a relationship. For me, relationship-building is all about asking questions. The kind of questions that most people who are raising money are happy to answer - where they're from, why they are homeless, why they can't get work, and where they're going next.
Whether any of their answers are true or not is irrelevant. To me they're like street musicians using the spoken word.
Melvin doesn't answer questions. Even when I ask him some of the basics - How old are you? How long you been around town? Stay warm last night? - he responds, "There you go, asking questions again," a response that triggers a frantic synaptic response as my mind scrambles for a way to get around or over that verbal smackdown, until I find myself in the familiar (and not unwelcome) no-man's land of stillness.
Compared to that, classic Zen koans - like asking whether a dog has Buddha nature or what's the sound of one hand clapping - seem amateurish.
A few times, I've tried refusing to give Melvin money unless he answers one of those questions - a tactic he clearly feels is beneath me. And usually doesn't work.
In general, he simply won't play by my rules. And, when I try to play by his rules - or even pretend I know those rules - we are both disappointed. I should know better. If I presume something important about his life - which can be virtually anything about his life - he'll usually start ranting and raving: "There you go with that stupid white shit again."
In response, I tell him if he's going to say that, I'm going to call him the N-word. (I say the word to Melvin, but I won't spell it out because I don't want to offend anyone who doesn't feel that's appropriate. I usually agree with them, but I think this is an exception to that rule. And Melvin seems to agree.)
At this point, we both laugh, and he gives me a fist bump or his signature handshake while throwing his other arm over my shoulder - a gesture of common ground that makes any appearance of discord seem like make-believe.
Even though Melvin occasionally says things or does things that give me pause, if not a full stop, I don't see him as some kind of unwitting Zen street master who's taken me on as an equally unwitting student. He's just Melvin being Melvin. And I'm just me being me.
The suggestion to "meet people where they are" is a fundamental "rule" for helping someone in need. It's the latest iteration of trying to "look through their eyes," "understand where they're coming from," "put yourself in their shoes," or some other idiom for being empathic and without judgment.
Putting myself in Melvin's shoes involves walking much slower than I usually walk, noticing things I usually don't notice, and looking at most situations in terms of what might be be in it for me, ideally money, even if that involved dealing with "aggravating white people."
Whereas, were he to put himself in my shoes, he'd have to walk really fast, be oblivious to most of the things around him, and get a "real" job.
I have to say - and I imagine some sociologist has written about this - the whole notion of meeting someone where they are can be a little condescending, in terms of a subtle so-called "power dynamic." But, in this case, the only "power" I have is money. Melvin's coin is who he is. So who's condescending to whom?
There I go, asking questions again.
* * *
It's hard to talk about people who live on the street without over-romanticizing the apparent difficulty of their lives.
A few days ago, I found Isaiah sitting on my stoop. Isaiah always looks pretty strung out; his girlfriend Melissa, even more so.
We talked for a while about what he and Melissa were doing in town. Where they were from. How he used to have an antiques business. How they'd had to leave the last house they were in when the owners sold it. Where they were camping. How their tent had been ruined in the rains and then his sneaker had come off at some point and he'd tried to follow it floating along the brook and, just after it disappeared, he came upon two perfectly good tents.
So, he'd lost a sneaker, but at least they had good shelter again - except for the rats that had found their way in the night before.
As I handed him a few bucks, Melissa came over and struggled to give me a grateful look before wiring her cardboard sign to the railing. I couldn't read the whole thing, but it said it was her birthday, asked for whatever you could spare and, most likely, offered God's blessing, which she is easily as qualified to dispense as any cleric or rabbi.
Ten minutes later, when I walked back outside, they were gone.
* * *
It hasn't been a good summer for living outside. The rains have been torrential.
So when Jake approached me from across the street and asked if I could do him a favor, I just said, "How much?"
But Jake always wants to explain first. It's more important to him than it is to me, like it's partly to convince himself. I do enjoy his explanations. No two are alike.
His plan this time was to go to northern Vermont the next day to work for his brother. The Drop-In Center had given him bus fare. His partner, Suzanne, would be staying in town to continue her cancer treatment until she could join him. They just needed another $20 to have enough for a hotel room. To get out of the rain. Clean themselves up.
Kenny has told me that Suzanne uses drugs. Equally unreliable sources have confirmed she has cancer. Either way or both, I figured she could use a night away from a leaky tent that tends to attract skunks, raccoons, and other wildlife.
A few days later, Jake showed back up. I kind of felt like a complete idiot - not because I gave him the money, but because I actually thought he was going to go up north to work with his brother.
I was walking down the sidewalk with the sun so bright in my eyes I didn't realize it was him until he was right in front of me. He looked more belligerent than penitent, as if his situation was so dire he didn't have time to deal with my judgments.
I explained that I wasn't upset, that I had just hoped the thing with his brother would work out. He was grateful for my understanding. Looking at me with his best at-the-end-of-his-rope expression, he explained.
He had indeed begun to establish himself as a professional farrier with his brother in northern Vermont. He loved the work (all three days of it, so far). But then Suzanne called to say that the doctors had given her only 11 to 12 months to live. He was crushed and came right back. He knew she was sick, but he'd thought they were holding the cancer at bay.
When I came back from a walk late the next afternoon, I found him sitting on my stoop. Suzanne was lying on the landing behind him, a backpack under her hip, her head on what appeared to be a bag for a tent.
She didn't look good. I weakly asked if some Advil would help at all. She shook her head. Just as I was about to give Jake money to get them both some food, he told me their real problem.
The town, he said, had cleared their whole encampment - theirs, and six or seven other tents.
The police usually ignore people camping in out-of-the-way places: Next to the tracks. Or in the abandoned field behind the lumber yard. Or along the stream, where the banks are steep and nobody will see them from the street above. But this one was in a cemetery, and some mourner must have complained.
Occasionally, as Jake talked, Suzanne slowly opened her eyes and commented like an English teacher correcting an oral presentation. It was endearing. And it dissolved more than one preconception - that this wasn't a marriage of convenience or desperation. They clearly loved each other.
I tried to remember if the shelter was still giving out sleeping bags or I had an extra one to give them. But then, Jake explained, their real problem was that his Suboxone and her painkillers were in the tent. Along with her iPhone.
The Suboxone made sense. Jake was shaky that afternoon in a way that I hadn't seen him in a long time. When I mentioned it, he said he had gone more than 80 days without opioids and wasn't about to blow it now. But without the Suboxone....
Gesturing back to Suzanne, he explained, without my asking, that she could get totally wiped out like that after chemo. She opened her eyes and gave me a wan smile.
I gave Jake more than I would usually and wished them the best. Jake said what he always says: "Thanks, boss."
* * *
There's a footbridge across the brook on the north side of the Co-op parking lot.
Every day, hundreds of people walk by or over that bridge. It's a good place to hang out if you need money. There's almost always someone there during the day, but never more than one. It's almost like they have assigned shifts.
A young woman was there not long ago. She was sitting cross-legged, reading a book - not something you see too often there - with a backpack, two water bottles, and some indiscriminate possessions behind her.
I started fumbling around in my pockets for a few dollars. When I reached her, I looked down and asked what she was reading. She showed me the cover. Said it was about some soldier in Afghanistan.
She looked up and gave me a tired smile. I asked her name and whether she was at the shelter or tenting. She said her name was Beth. There wasn't room at the shelter, so they were tenting, but the tent had been taken away.
I figured it was the same encampment Jake had told me about.
"You were at the cemetery?"
They had been. And, like Jake and Suzanne, they'd gone to the fire department to get their stuff, but the fire department didn't have it.
I said I'd heard the tents were at the Department of Public Works and explained where that was. She thanked me but said the tent wasn't in great shape and they didn't have much in it anyway. Also, she'd heard the shelter was getting new tents for people who needed them.
Then I asked her where she was from.
She named a small village about 40 miles away - a very small village of fewer than 500. In the late '70s, my wife Wendy and I were two of them. In fact, it was our daughter's first home, albeit very briefly. Beth knew the house we had lived in and said hers was about five houses down, past the general store.
Back then, we didn't have a whole lot more cash in our pockets than this girl had now. But it was a different time, economically and culturally. Plus, our support system was significantly greater, and a friend owned the general store. We weren't going to go hungry.
As we continued to talk, Beth's face became a little more animated. She began to look less like a bedraggled young woman from parts unknown and more like a local kid reading a book at the bridge.
Why was she here? Why was she living in a tent?
She had been living in that house in the small town until her mom found a new boyfriend, locked her out, and sold it.
What was she going to do to next?
Get a job as a certified nursing assistant. She'd done it before. She added that she was also certified as a med tech, which clearly (and rightly) she was proud of.
What was stopping her from working?
She needed an ID. Someone had stolen her birth certificate. She'd put all her stuff in an old jeep when her mom kicked her out and someone broke in and stole everything. Or maybe they stole the whole jeep. I can't remember.
I started to suggest the shelter could help, but she'd already talked with them and expected to have a new birth certificate soon.
Would she have to be relicensed to work as a CNA again?
She just had to take a short refresher course and a test. It would take about a month.
Beth knew what she was doing. She just needed a little help to do it.
I asked whether the fact she kept saying "they" meant she had a partner.
She said yes, adding she wouldn't feel safe living outside in a tent alone.
I felt better hearing her say that. I know - that's a little paternal. But, by then, it was as if I were talking with a neighbor's kid across space and time.
* * *
Brattleboro escaped the devastation of the floods that descended this summer on the middle part of the state. But we have had our share of violent storms.
As I drove north on Route 91 on Sept. 8, the rain was as blinding as a blizzard. I was going 40 mph and trying to decide whether to pull over. I began wondering about the things you wonder about in storms like this: Was I about to hydroplane? Would I lose power at home? Which roads would get washed out?
I survived. Power interruptions were minimal. And, as far as I know, no houses were swept away.
I can't say the same for the homes of my friends on the street.
The next afternoon I noticed Isaiah holding a cardboard sign. I had been hoping he was making enough money from his copper-wire stone pendants that I knew he'd been making and selling on the street.
I asked him what was going on. He said that the storm had wiped out their tent, the shelter didn't have any more at the moment, and he needed to raise money quickly for something to protect them from the rain.
Practically speaking, the most dependable way to direct money to people who live on the street is to donate to a shelter, food shelf, or other organization that provides direct services. On any given day, I might encounter a handful of people who are in need of food, shelter, and housing. The local service organizations, on the other hand, encounter dozens of people in need 24/7. They know how to deliver practical help far better than I do.
Still, when you see someone in immediate need and you know the shelter is full and the food shelf is closed, you might want to temporarily create what philanthropies call a "designated fund," i.e., give some cash to a specific person.
So, I gave Isaiah the few singles I had in my pocket and was halfway down the street before I realized how ridiculous that was. I walked back and, pointing at the sporting goods store a few doors down, said, "Let's see if they have any tents on sale."
He looked down, like he couldn't possibly ask me to buy him a new tent and said he knew a guy who was selling an old canvas one for $20.
I sighed. The tent that had collapsed was probably one of those old $20 canvas ones. Still, I gave him the $20 and said I hoped he could get it set up before the rains forecast for that night.
Later that day, I asked him if they'd gotten the tent set up. He told me it was sold by the time they got there.
So we walked a few blocks back to the sporting goods store, during which he told me how he could pay me back in part by making me a really nice leather seat for my bike. I appreciated the intention.
We went in the store and looked for sales. We chose a tent, and Isaiah took off with the box on his shoulder walking in the direction of their campsite.
The next day, Melissa told me they hadn't set the tent up because they wanted to put it on pallets and she had just gotten permission to take some from a loading dock nearby.
I've never spent anywhere near that much money on one of my street friends. Isaiah and Melissa have been around for a while, but I figure I have a decent sense of their story. I suspected that one or both had beat a drug addiction, and he clearly has some serious mood disorder. I knew they'd also had some bad luck-it doesn't take much these days-and that they were doing the best they could.
Still, I realized that, for all I knew, Isaiah and Melissa had sold the tent for drugs and got one of those $20 tents. When you give money on the street, you can't guarantee it'll go where you assume.
A couple of days later, I was talking to a couple who were just passing through town but seemed to have been here long enough to get a sense of the street. (The woman said she had already used Narcan on someone who overdosed in a public bathroom.)
I guess they'd seen me talking to Isaiah, because the guy told me stories that left me feeling gut-punched. Soon, I found myself in the cycle of rationalization that I thought (and claimed) I was free of: I'll just make sure they set up the tent. I'll ask around a little more to see if they are really involved with drugs. I'll find some subtle way to confront him indirectly. Still, it isn't like I'm going to ask for the tent back. Why believe those people passing through town; they undoubtedly have their own agendas. I'll talk to Melissa just to get a sense of where she's at. No, I'll find a way to have someone who knows what they're doing check on her.
I've seen both Isaiah and Melissa walking around with a dog. Crouching down to stroke her fur and whisper in her ear. All I can know for sure is that she is a really sweet dog and that they love her.
It's complicated. Very complicated.
* * *
Stevie always looks like he knows where he's going and is determined to get there. He more glides than walks. Like he's barely lifting his feet off the ground. Or is having trouble convincing them to stay on task.
When he crosses the street, it's always at a diagonal. He stops. Goes. Stops. Goes. Works his way around the cars as if they were standing still. He's turned jaywalking into performance art.
Stevie is always barefoot, with his pants cuffs rolled up a bit so he doesn't end up tripping on them. I don't remember him from last winter, but I can imagine him wearing unlaced ankle-high boots that don't really fit. And not tripping on the laces.
Since Stevie is always on the move, I'd never had a chance to talk to him. So I was surprised when I looked up from my table outside the bakery and saw him jaywalking across the street right at me.
As he reached the curb, he stopped, looked at me and said, "Could you give me money for a cupcake?"
I stood up. I don't know why. But when someone asks you for cupcake money, it seems like a pretty serious transaction.
People have told me they need money for coffee, cigarettes, beer, gas to get home, and a motel room to get out of the rain. But nobody had ever asked me for money for a cupcake. Except a child. And Stevie was no child. He was a barefoot grownup who was determined to get his hands on a cupcake. Right now.
I started asking him my basic questions. He told me his name and that he was from New Hampshire, over by the Seacoast.
What was he doing here? Stevie paused, surprised. He thought his part of the negotiation was finished. He tried to drag his eyes away from my hand which was reaching in my pocket and said absentmindedly that he had a friend here.
I didn't want to annoy him with more questions, but I couldn't help ask what his plans were as I found $5. (A few singles wouldn't do it. The cupcakes cost like $3 and are worth it.)
Even though Stevie's eyes were now fixated on the cash I'd materialized, he managed to drag his attention back long enough to look up and tell me he was planning to buy a house.
"Gee, Stevie, you don't have money for a cupcake but you might have money for a house?"
I didn't say this disparagingly. He sounded serious. So I was curious. Maybe he thought he was coming into an inheritance.
While keeping one eye on the $5, he explained that he was going to start getting his SSI disability payments again. It made perfect sense to him that this might be enough for him to buy a house. So it made perfect sense to me.
Maybe that's what they mean when they say to meet someone where they are - I was already calculating how much of a mortgage payment he could make with a typical disability check. But he interrupted my financial planning to add that he might go to Canada or Iceland instead.
By now, his hands were getting a little shaky and his eyes were totally riveted back on the $5. I began to feel like I was torturing the guy, so I gave it to him and said it was great to meet him.
I had just sat back down to start working again when I looked up to see him blasting out of the bakery door, holding the cupcake up like an ice cream cone you didn't want to drip.
He caught a dollop of frosting just before it fell, and kept walking.
Diagonally across the street. Barefoot.
David Blistein's "day job" is as a scriptwriter for PBS documentaries. He's also has a site on Substack, Fields of Vision, which currently includes "Writing Asides-What Writers Do When They're Not Writing," a serial novel in process, and his latest series of posts, "Street Cred," which is excerpted in this piece.
All the names in this piece are pseudonyms except for Kenny and Melvin, who, Blistein writes, "I know well enough to use their real names. They assume they are providing valuable material for my writing, anyway. Which now they are."
In fact, Blistein attributes some of his recent generosity to the fact he is now giving a portion of new subscription proceeds from his Substack site to those on the streets whose lives he is chronicling.
This Voices Dispatch was submitted to The Commons.