Where the heart is
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | March 31,2013
Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo
Paul Mansur says “I don’t do smiles,” but the Vermonter’s story does offer a message this Easter: “Never give up on people.”
At first glance, Vermonter Paul Mansur appears as prickly as the crewcut atop his tall, camouflage-swathed frame. His eyes narrow with suspicion. His mouth widens but says nothing, revealing only a stream of pungent cigarette smoke.
The woman he eyes on a dark street looks as weak as he is strong.
“How ya doing?” he asks in a gravelly baritone.
“---- you,” she replies with a particularly explosive expletive.
So why does his grizzled stubble part for a grateful smile?
Mansur is a night outreach worker. On the job from dusk until dawn, he scours the shadows for wanderers lacking homes, help or hope.
On the top floors of government, spokesmen explain how the state counts its “unsheltered” residents by surveying local social service agencies each winter, but doesn’t expect to update its year-old total of 2,819 homeless Vermonters — the highest number per capita in New England — until later this spring.
On the ground, Mansur isn’t fazed. He relies more on a police scanner, a tank of an SUV and instinct.
“You look for the best hiding spots,” he says. “In the wintertime it’s easy — you look for footprints headed off into nowhere. Summertime it’s harder — you look for people with backpacks, with night rolls, constantly walking all hours of the day. You stop, you talk with them, you find out what’s going on.”
Or what’s not going on. Mansur sometimes reaches out for weeks or months before the most skeptical or scared individual responds. But don’t mistake him as patient. He’s just stubbornly if not surlily persistent.
The 45-year-old started work two decades ago when he noticed the lack of a nighttime safety net after social service agencies closed for the day. Talking to leaders of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, he volunteered to monitor the most vulnerable from the nonprofit’s closing time at 5 p.m. to its reopening at 8:30 a.m.
The only thing more surprising than the offer: the fact he followed through night upon night without pay.
“I’m headstrong,” he says. “I’d see someone on the street, stop and say, ‘How ya doing?’ If it’s cold, I’d go to their camps and wake them up and ask, ‘Anything you need?’”
Mansur did so without compensation or complaint for two years before the center figured out a way to obtain a federal Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) grant. Creating a first-in-the-state position, he now covers three southern counties and has trained the only other Vermont night outreach worker, in Burlington.
Setting pay and precedent aside, Mansur’s quest has changed little. Delivering small comforts such as coffee, a blanket or 30-below-zero sleeping bag, he’s like a postman: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stops him. Yet unlike a mail carrier, he’s also on 24-hour weekend call.
This year, his town’s winter homeless shelter (housed in the First Baptist Church that made national news when it sold its Tiffany stained-glass window to avoid closure) is staying open into April because of lingering snow and cold. But just because people lack food or shelter doesn’t mean they’ll accept a little free help.
Some are mentally ill and fear medication, Mansur explains. Others are simply leery of a society that too easily lumps a complex spectrum of individuals — upended by changes in income, relationships, health or insurance — into a single stereotype.
Mansur relates. Approach him on the sidewalk at sunset and he’ll chat freely. Add the fact that you’re a reporter and he suddenly goes silent. Months later, he chooses his words carefully.
“Everybody is so scared of the homeless — they don’t realize when the economy takes a dive and no one’s hiring or you end up in the hospital for a week, you’re one of them.”
Mansur has seen his share of recent challenges. Nationally, today’s poor have suffered the hardest financial hit since the Great Depression. Statewide, Tropical Storm Irene swept away dozens of trailers and tents along riverbanks. Locally, a heart attack took the life of 65-year-old Melinda Bussino, the longtime head of the Drop In Center and mainstay on nearly every Vermont anti-poverty advisory board.
“Melinda was like my stepmother,” he says softly before going silent again.
Mansur once suffered a mild heart attack himself. When his doctor suggested stress reduction, he frowned on meditation and exercise and instead focused on his camera, taking photos of a hidden world of canvas and cardboard bunkers.
“People say, ‘How can you work with them people?’ That p----- me off. They’re not ‘them people.’”
Yet the question persists: What motivates a man to surrender his nights to the darkness and seeming strangers?
“At the beginning, when I’d see the guys they’d say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, I do.’ I’ve been homeless. I was bouncing around because I didn’t have the references for a rental. Then I sued the housing authority for discrimination. I thought, ‘This is wrong — let’s make it right.’’’
Mansur’s 1994 federal suit, supported by Vermont Legal Aid, changed several laws. His subsequent outreach work is changing lives, especially among those frightened by the sight or sound of authority.
“I show up and they calm down. They know I’m there to be on their side. They know I’m there because I’ve been there.”
Which brings him back to the woman of slight frame and sharp tongue. She has been somewhere else: In a medical unit bombed in a war half a world away. Intact yet shattered, the onetime nurse doesn’t view any building as safe.
“Four walls — it’s flashbacks,” Mansur says.
Most people are repelled by her demeanor. But knowing her full story, he responds differently.
“If I drive up and she swears, I know she’s all set. If she says, ‘Paul, I got a problem,’ then I know something’s wrong.”
Take the frigid night she requested a blanket.
“When I give you one, you generally keep it,” Mansur says. “But that next morning she stopped me and handed back the blanket all folded up nice and neat and said ‘Thank you.’”
Today is Easter. Shelter workers at the First Baptist Church will roll up sleeping bags from the floor this morning so the congregation can celebrate the promise of rebirth and redemption.
For Mansur, the holiday will melt into another sleepless night. How can people help? Money and materials, his supervisors suggest. But for him, it all starts with mindset.
“Sometimes it takes a while to get someone to go to a shelter,” he says at the end of one night shift. “You’ve got to accept people for who people are, and treat them with dignity. Melinda taught me something a long time ago — never give up on people, because it could be 10 minutes from a miracle.”
The gruff, gentle man pauses to listen to the latest alert on his police scanner.
Still on the lookout for the homeless?
No, he replies — he sees everyone as simply human.
Camp for a cause
When Vermont’s winter homeless shelters close each spring, directors such as Lucie Fortier ask the same question: “Where do folks go?”
Many camp in tents and cars, on friends’ couches or, in Fortier’s town next month, on the public common.
Brattleboro homeless advocates hope to shed light on the statewide lack of year-round emergency shelters by holding a “Camp for a Common Cause” outdoor overnight fundraiser May 3.
A winter 2012 count found 21 percent of Vermont’s 2,819 homeless in a shelter, compared with 24 percent in transitional housing, 11 percent in government-funded lodging and 9 percent in no building at all.
But emergency shelters — which host homeless who are on waiting lists for more permanent programs or don’t qualify because of drinking or drug use — are open only during the winter, leaving many to fend for themselves each spring, summer and fall.
“People camp out wherever they can,” says Joshua Davis, executive director of Morningside Shelter, a 29-bed year-round Brattleboro facility that’s always full.
On May 3, advocates will set up tents on the Brattleboro Common so the public can see the situation firsthand. Fortier, head of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center that offers the homeless respite during the day, hopes the event will resonate statewide: “This will bring attention to their plight.”