Several years ago — 10 or 12 years would be about right — a central Vermont journalist was returning home after working late on a bitterly, jarringly cold winter night. It was a little past midnight when he drove through Barre and saw, in the lighted, recessed doorway of a downtown store, a homeless man huddled against the wall, his knees drawn close, his head covered by the hood of a shabby winter coat.
The journalist recognized the man, who was probably in his fifties; he had seen him lingering on the sidewalks, always by himself. Still, the journalist was alarmed. When he got home he called the police to ask if they could assist the man. The officer who answered said they knew him and he just wanted to be left alone. This was an answer, but a troubling one.
The next morning, the journalist drove back through town and saw him in the same doorway. He had survived, but he was visibly stunned. That day the journalist mentioned the incident to a friend, a business owner in the city, who was upset by the story. She contacted another friend, and they swung into action. The two women networked and raised funds, and literally rescued the man. They got him into a motel, while they worked on (and eventually achieved) a more-permanent solution, and organized daily drop-offs of food to sustain him. The journalist participated, and learned from others that the man was from Waitsfield, where he had worked, at some level, in the restaurant business. It was unclear why he was homeless, and in Barre. He was not forthcoming with information, and seldom said “Thank you” when people delivered his food.
“He’s not looking for friends,” the business owner’s husband observed.
But people don’t have to conform to social expectations to deserve help from their communities. Foremost, they deserve it because they are human beings. They also deserve it because their homelessness is not their entire life’s story. Last year a homeless man in Chittenden County was publicly recognized for saving the life of a trucker who suffered a heart attack and crashed his truck near the man’s encampment in the woods; hearing the noise, the man ran to the roadway and performed CPR until a rescue team arrived. It turned out he was a former fireman and EMT. The Waitsfield man had been employed in the restaurant business. Undoubtedly, he had paid taxes, and in this way — at the very least — contributed to the mutually dependent and supportive system we call society.
Even though the Barre incident was not so long ago, our communities now are better served by well-coordinated networks of overnight shelters, community-action agencies, nonprofit housing-development organizations, state-affiliated mental health resources like Rutland Mental Health Services and Washington County Mental Health, and local, bare-bones, peer-counseling groups. A critical component, says Rob Farrell, executive director of Good Samaritan Haven in Barre, is an interfaith network of churches that provide meals and overflow shelters there and in Montpelier.
Police, too, play an essential role, in their ability to assist shelters and bring peaceful closure when tensions are high. Which can happen when dozens of people who are in personal crises — be it from financial desperation, mental health issues, or substance dependencies — must coexist for the night.
Volunteers supplement staff members who earn very little for their stressful and demanding work.
“It’s almost a higher calling,” says Farrell. “My team is not in (it) for the money. In the long run, we’d like to work ourselves out of a job.”
It was never clear why the Waitsfield man had fallen through the cracks in the system. But people do. In the Democratic presidential-candidates’ debate Wednesday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders said, “We’ve got 500,000 people sleeping on the streets!”
Hopefully, most of our homeless folks do not. The Rutland Open Door Mission reports that in 2018 it provided 37,000 meals and 14,000 bed nights to people needing those services. Among its guests, the Mission says, “89% are veterans who served their country with honor.”
Importantly, the shelters are proactive. They link each guest with a housing case coordinator who tries simultaneously to address the guest’s personal problems and find transitional, if not permanent, safe housing.
Most important, for the rest of us, is financial support. It’s winter (officially or not); homelessness, for every person in that situation, is now a crisis. We’re also nearing the end of the year, when many of us round out our charitable contributions for tax purposes.
Our local shelters, or the one nearest us if there are none in our communities, desperately need funding. It’s the civilized thing to do.