BRATTLEBORO — On Monday morning members of Youth Services A4U began setting up a life-sized game of Candyland. However, this was not just any game.
A4U, or Advocation for the Unfortunate, is a homeless self-advocacy group based in Brattleboro. The life-sized game of Candyland was the culmination of two to three months of work by the group designed to create awareness and educate people about the struggles they encounter daily. A portion of the game presented scenarios to people, asking them what they would do. As an example, Workforce Development Coordinator Michaela Stockwell read one of the cards.
“It’s 16 degrees outside, there’s no open hotel rooms and the shelter is full. You do not have any money and have not eaten yet today. The shelter is not able to give out tents, blankets, or food. What will you do to not die? How will you get through the night?”
Some of the Candyland cards asked questions like “What are the ways you have benefitted from community support?” or “What does quality mental health care look like?”
The public is invited to attend a community conversation on Windham County homelessness on Wednesday, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the Brooks Memorial Library. One part of the event will involve the life-size Candyland game for the audience to play and engage with, as a visualization of the obstacles they face as individuals without a permanent address or roof over their head.
The members of the A4U group have been employed through Youth Services Work Today program. It is a pilot low-barrier work program that began in July of 2020 to perform custodial work, seasonal tasks, and simple municipal maintenance projects, according to the organization’s website. In the last year, however, the focus of the program has shifted from performing various tasks to advocacy work.
“The past few years we came to realize that there was a huge need. Initially my role was to disperse everyone to their sites to pick blueberries and rake yards and wash meters,” said Stockwell. “It turned into the need being for me to support folks in making phone calls to the places they needed to or getting IDs.”
However, the funding for the program is in jeopardy. As of Wednesday, unless further funding is procured, the program will be suspended.
The advocacy work being done by the A4U group has very distinctive objectives. Among them are breaking down the stigma surrounding people’s view of homeless people through education, expanding resources, and working with the community to identify problems and create solutions for the homeless.
One of the barriers the group said they encounter is that there seems to be a fear of homeless people. That is something they would like to change.
“[We want to] let them know that not every homeless person is an addict, not every addict person is homeless,” said AJ, a member of the group who also served two tours of duty in Iraq and another in Afghanistan as a member of the Marine Corps. “I feel as though we have had a very good … response as a whole. So, we’re just working toward expanding the focus group.”
An event the group held around fall for Gallery Walk was successful and some members of the Legislature took notice. As a result, the group was asked to hold another event sometime after the election so that members of the Legislature could attend. That led to the life-sized game of Candyland as a means of engaging and educating the public about the lives of homeless people. In the process, the group drafted and handed out surveys to 50 members of the public. The group found that 85 to 90 percent of the people surveyed in Brattleboro would like to help but were unsure of how to do so.
The members of the group face numerous obstacles daily. Several of them are currently living in tents because the shelters are full and there is a waiting list.
AJ said there have been nights where he has stayed up all night, burning wood in a pan so his wife, Trish, could sleep and the couple could survive the cold. When morning finally arrived, he said he would go to the Groundworks Drop-In Center to sleep on the floor.
It is not infrequent that they only have one meal a day. They have recently tried to solve this problem by partnering with restaurants, such as Elliot Street Fish and Chips and Gouger’s Market and Deli, to have them drop off leftover food at Groundworks instead of throwing it out.
The group is also trying to change the stigma surrounding the homeless by holding events such as the Candyland game to engage with the community.
Stockwell read a statement about the feeling of the stigma from Trish.
“Often, we do not feel we can sit somewhere in town without being looked at like we are dirty or don’t belong. We hope that we can shift this culture and there’s space for everyone in our Brattleboro community,” Trish’s statement read. “Being homeless means that we are not at our best place in life, but we often do not have the ability to be private about anything we are experiencing because we simply have nowhere private to be.”
A lack of empathy for their situations is something the group indicated has been a common occurrence and it is one of the things they would like to try to change.
“Everyone is one bad event [away],” AJ said “What if you get hurt by an accident, knock on wood, and you lose your job and you can’t pay rent. Everyone has a story.”
They have all experienced some barriers to gaining employment to try to improve their situations also. One example AJ mentioned was theft of identity documents, which are needed to get a job. Michael, a member of the group who has nursing skills, said trying to replace identity documents is something that could really set someone back. Replacing a social security card takes weeks, she said. Retrieving it can often require transportation to Keene, N.H. or a nearby Social Security Office.
A further problem they all face, is the lack of access to basic resources. One possible solution the group said is having a hub where they can access essential services, such as a working phone that is available on certain days throughout the week at certain times. Having such services under the same roof would enable them to make the necessary calls to begin the process of doing things such as replacing identity documents, seeing a nurse, or signing up for Medicaid or food stamps.
The Work Today program is important to all the members for several reasons. When it first began, the program connected 10 people with temporary work in Brattleboro. Members of the group would show up, sometimes at midnight or before, and wait until 9 a.m. for the possibility of being connected with some temporary work.
“You’d wait 10 hours to work six,” AJ said. “That’s how much this program was meaning to a lot of us. That’s how much the $90 could help us.”
It has become more than that for all of them though. The group also said the act of simply meeting once a week has helped their mental state significantly.
“The fact that I can come here, honestly, it just about saves my life,” said Trish.
Members of the group said it also helps to provide a sense of stability in their lives. In talking about the results of the surveys the group issued earlier in the year, AJ said that for people who were unsure of how to help, there is one definitive thing that could be done now.
“Another way people can help, honestly, is they can help us extend this program,” he said. “Wednesday is going to be the last day we have money for it. The four of us can’t continue to advocate for our community without some help.”The group urged anyone interested in helping to contact Stockwell at Youth Services at 802-257-0361 or info@ youthservicesinc.org.