Brattleboro area homelessness: Sharing some stories behind the statistics
BRATTLEBORO --The lack of a permanent residence doesn’t always come from poor decisions.
Many people start out with lives similar to the average American until one unfortunate incident turns their world upside-down and leaves them with nothing. And two area nonprofits want to help locals recognize and appreciate the very human stories behind the faces of homelessness they see every day.
The Brattleboro Area Drop-In Center and Morningside Shelter aim to raise money to aid them in their common goal of ending homelessness and hunger in the greater Brattleboro area. Entitled "Camp for a Common Cause," the event has been scheduled for Friday, May 3, in the Brattleboro Common with the goal of generating $20,000 for the cause.
Lucie Fortier, executive director of the drop-in center, said the event is meant to draw attention to what homeless individuals do to find safe, warm places to sleep at night.
"Our homeless men and women -- they’re human beings like the rest of us and should be treated with the same respect that we would also want to get from everybody else," she said at the First Baptist Church of Brattleboro, joined by four men who have dealt with homelessness and are willing to share their stories. All wanted to dispel myths or stereotypes floating around about the disadvantaged.
Farris Cathey is originally from New York City and served two tours in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine. After his time in the military, he wound up in Boston before moving to Brattleboro for work. He didn’t follow the company that employed him when it moved to New Hampshire and Cathey fell on hard times, eventually battling alcoholism and graduating from The Phoenix House -- which is part of a non-profit drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization.
He lost everything he had, including a marriage, due to personal problems and sought help because he "grew tired of it all. He got in touch with Vermont Associates (a nonprofit providing job training and employment services that took him in) and the Overflow Shelter, which he now works for.
"I slept right there," he said, pointing to a spot on the floor in an aisle separating two rows of tables and chairs. "I have my own place now and everything."
His experience is valuable to the shelter because it allows Cathey to sympathize and identify with the individuals who need it.
Victoro Johnson was also a member of the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Afghanistan and Iraq in 1991. After growing up in Newfane, he moved back to the area for a job, which was given to someone younger.
"Then I discovered that my health was completely deteriorating, faster than I had anticipated on," he said. "I come to the Overflow Shelter and I was able to stay here and feel safe. It’s a warm place to sleep and a meal at night.
"I got out of the shelter and I volunteer at the Overflow Shelter, and also at the drop-in center, to try to give back a little bit what they’ve given to me," he continued, adding that he is still a recipient of the shelter’s services.
Kevin Regan said his story is, unfortunately, quite common. After graduating from high school and receiving a college education, he landed a good job and everything was going well until he developed a drinking problem. He put himself into detoxification in his late 40s and then stayed at The Salvation Army for nine months. He managed to get back one of his former jobs and stayed in the basement of a close friend. But, eventually, business started to slow and he was asked to leave when he could no longer pay rent.
He resorted to sleeping in cars for a while until someone bought him a bus ticket from Springfield, Mass., to Brattleboro nearly two years ago.
"I’ve been here almost two years now. And I like it here. I do whatever I can for work. I shovel snow for six different businesses on Main Street. I do what I have to do to survive," he said, donning a Red Sox cap. "Brattleboro is a wonderful town. I love the people here."
Another man, who asked to go by the initials F.E.H., said he first became homeless in 1980 -- by choice.
He had a full-time job and rented an apartment when he went hiking in the woods and discovered a cave. He became so enchanted he decided to make it his home and took only what he could carry with him. He lived there for three years and never felt more at peace in his life.
He then left the cave, which was later destroyed by an excavation machine, and many years later made his way to Brattleboro.
"People ask me, ‘How do you survive?;" he mentioned, "and I say, ‘With God’s will.’"
Fortier and Morningside Shelter Executive Director Josh Davis said these stories aren’t uncommon and the sour economy has made things worse.
"The Overflow is overflowing. Morningside Shelter is at capacity," Davis said. "We’re both working very hard with what our respective missions are and I think the idea behind the camp-out is to say, ‘This is a common cause. It’s a community issue. Let’s come together.’"
Fortier said, as of Jan. 31, the shelter has seen 128 unduplicated people this winter and believes it will see more than the 133 it had last year. Both say the numbers are staggering -- and Johnson said many people don’t even know the Morningside Shelter exists.
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