‘Why don’t they just get a job?’

Some general answers to some common questions about giving money to people on the streets of Brattleboro

David Blistein, a scriptwriter for documentary films and an author, publishes a Substack newsletter, Fields of Vision, where he is writing "Street Cred," a series of essays that profile the lives and circumstances of his unhoused neighbors in downtown Brattleboro. (Note that he's changed the names he uses here.) Some of these stories were featured in the Voices section on Sept. 20. "This is a big topic, and I welcome comments, corrections, and criticism," he says.

I was happy to hear the issue of so-called "panhandling" discussed at a recent Selectboard hearing, where board member Daniel Quipp made a key point: You don't have to choose between giving money to someone holding a cardboard sign and donating to a nonprofit organization. You can give a little or a lot to either or both.

Nonprofit organizations do their best to provide long-term solutions to chronic issues of lack of shelter, hunger, transportation, clothing, medical care, etc., whereas when you give cash (or a gift card) to someone on the street, you're helping address a more immediate need.

Over the last few months, I've talked to well over a dozen of my neighbors who live on the street by day and wherever they can by night. I've learned enough to give at least general answers to some common questions about why or why not give them money.

First, let me assure you that those immediate needs do not usually involve getting a dose of some drug. (I admit that, if you count sugar and caffeine, the percentage goes up.)

* * *

Why don't they just get a job? My biggest surprise when I started getting to know my friends was how many don't have any kind of picture identification - and may not have, or remember, their Social Security number.

How could they not have an ID? Well, maybe they never had a driver's license, let alone a passport. More likely, they lost it as they moved from place to place, or someone stole their wallet or bag and threw it away after taking out any cash. Or they got evicted and the landlord threw everything into the dumpster. It may have even been confiscated by the police after a misdemeanor arrest.

And they never had the means (or understood how) to retrieve or replace it.

Meanwhile, you cannot get work without an ID unless someone is willing to pay you under the table. The logistics of getting an ID are very complex; they are different in different states and usually require jumping through enough hoops to get you a job teaching at NECCA.

Also, if they do have an ID and can get a job, that job is often part-time, seasonal, and/or has unpredictable hours - i.e., it usually isn't enough to pay the rent.

My friend Bruce now has a job working around 15 hours a week at a reasonable wage, and you can see him walking downtown in the morning with his heavy-duty sleeping bag, having been outside another night as he saves enough to share a room somewhere with someone. (Now that Dec.15 has passed, he might be able to get a housing voucher - a process that isn't as straightforward as you might think.)

Melissa is an experienced machinist, but she's told me employers don't like hiring people who live on the street, particularly if they suspect the applicant has had issues with drugs.

Why don't they just go to the shelter? Usually, our shelter is filled, and several dozen people are literally left out in the cold. It's not just the number of beds. If people have a history of showing up drunk or stoned, are violent, obstreperous, or disruptive, they won't get too high on the waitlist (if they can get on it at all).

Doesn't the shelter give out tents and sleeping bags? Sometimes. Until they run out.

There are several places that people tent around town. But when the areas get too visible - or, I guess, when enough people complain - those in tents are given 24 hours to leave their site.

I admit I've been appalled by the trash that accumulates around some tents. One couple was very appreciative when I gave them construction trash bags so they could keep their site clean.

Not to be overly dramatic, but we have free trash bags for dogs, right?

Aren't there tent heaters? Yup. You can get a heater and propane for about $100 - if you've managed to save up $100. Those little green propane tanks cost $8 to $10 and last a few days.

If you scrounge up the money for a larger tank, it's way more cost-effective. However, if you run out of propane in the early evening, you have to find your way to Tractor Supply to fill it.

Plus, heaters are worth a lot on the street. If you get one, someone might steal it. (I know one guy who carried his with him everywhere he went.)

Aren't there places to get free food? Yes. On some days. At some times. The local restaurants are very generous and, as best they can, they provide food to those who need it.

St. Brigid's kitchen serves free lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. four days a week. Foodworks is a great source of food for many low-income people. It's open three hours a day, five days a week.

But if you live in a tent, food attracts animals, you don't have refrigeration, and you have no legal way to cook.

By the way, I hear that dumpsters behind supermarkets are good places to find free food.

There are lots of places to get free clothes, right? That is true. Experienced Goods is great. It's open seven hours a day, five days a week.

One Sunday evening, a friend of mine was offered a construction job for the next day, expected to reach a high of 35 degrees the next day. He needed work boots and gloves. It's hard to get those items at 5 p.m. Sunday without some serious money or determined dumpster diving.

Why do they need gas money? I confess that requests for gas money always make me a little suspicious. My friends can usually borrow a car in exchange for filling an empty tank. I know them well enough now to believe they are usually going where they claim - although, sometimes, it does seem they ask for more money than they should strictly need for gas.

Where do they need gas to go? Wal-Mart at 8 p.m. Sunday to buy those boots or warm gloves.

A trip to someplace for a short, supervised visit with their children in foster care. Like my friend Carol, a single mother whose house burned down. She needs to build her life back from nothing before she can care for her kids safely again.

To get to the Methadone or Suboxone clinic in the morning and back. Until they get "take-homes," they need to go every day. From towns as much as 30 miles away. They may be eligible for Medicaid rides. But getting one is hit or miss.

To visit a partner in a hospital who has been taken for surgery - or, perhaps, yes, an overdose.

One of my neighbors just wanted to go to see her grandfather in a hospital 60 miles away before he died.

Doesn't Medicaid pay for health care? Not to be crude, but if you are living on the street and don't have Medicaid, you're screwed.

Why wouldn't you have Medicaid? Undoubtedly you'd be income-eligible. But maybe you didn't get the renewal notice because you're no longer at your latest temporary address. (Many people use the shelter address.) Or you're stuck in a gap between losing insurance and getting approved for Medicaid. Or you're being investigated for Medicaid fraud. Or you just missed an appointment because you weren't clear when to go where.

My friend Jake had a bad bike accident. No Medicaid. The hospital treated him, but he needed the $40 for the follow-up doctor visit. Hopefully, the hospital will forgive the $10,000+ charge.

Becky needed emergency surgery in Massachusetts. She was released with a Massachusetts prescription for an antibiotic that the drug store in Vermont said they couldn't honor.

* * *

What can we do right here right now?

I don't know what I'm about to suggest is legal or practical. I don't know who would fund this. I don't know what volunteers would be willing to do.

But here are three ideas that might be worth exploring.

1. Have people work with the Drop-in Center specifically to help people who need IDs. (The Groundworks folks there are juggling a lot of needs.)

2. Have people trained to understand how to negotiate available services spend time in the downtown and other parts of town from about 4 to 8 p.m. several evenings a week to ask people about their immediate needs and ultimately connect them with services. They might be supplied with blankets, protein bars, etc. to hand out. (I haven't read all of Tracy Kidder's book Rough Sleepers, but he shares ideas about how this sort of concept worked in Boston.)

3. Set aside an area for camping (to deal with overflow from the shelter) that has a water supply, trash receptacles, and other basic shelter needs.

I know some people are concerned that, if all these services are provided, Brattleboro will attract even more people to live on the street.

Well, it's important to note that many smaller towns like ours are beginning to have big-city issues. It'd be great if we could get ahead of the curve.

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

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