“The history of the world my sweet is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” — Stephen Soundheim
“I don’t put a cup out because it makes me feel poor.” — Woman experiencing homelessness, sitting on the street in Montpelier yesterday asking me for money as I walked by.
This commentary is by Will Eberle of Northfield, executive director of the Vermont Association of Mental Health and Addiction Recovery and Recovery Vermont, and founder of Mission Driver Consulting.
When we make real investments in people, customized to their needs and aspirations, they make transformational progress in their lives and we get to live in communities that have fully catalyzed the gifts of their citizens.
So doing, our collective goals of equity are no longer murky or inflammatory but operationalized in palpable ways we can all see and touch and feel as we collectively revel in the success, happiness, health and prosperity of future generations.
Instead, Vermont’s elected and appointed leaders are letting hundreds of families across our state go back to living in tents and cars and whatever scrap of couch or floor they can talk their way into from one night to the next.
Keeping our extended emergency housing program in place is as critical as keeping our highway bridges in place but it’s also just the roughest Band-Aid on the most festering wound. We need robustly enhanced investments in, and a near total rebuild of, our entire social safety net and system of care in Vermont.
For two decades, I’ve been trying to convince our elected and appointed leaders of this with data and return-on-investment figures and examples of evidence-based practices and approaches that are working elsewhere. I give up. Today I’m just going to tell them what keeping those systems the way they are has done to people, in hopes they will be sufficiently moved to really try to make things better.
If they hear these stories and still want to not just keep things the same, but also rip off the tiny scrap of Band-Aid our most vulnerable neighbors have been given to stave off the hemorrhage, I just ask one thing: Don’t do it in a quiet office somewhere. Don’t use numbers to describe people and arrange them in ways that seem to suggest things are going to be fine. Don’t tell us we can afford to gild our Statehouse roof but we can’t afford for people with absolutely nothing to be able to at least use a toilet anymore.
Go to the hotels and see how little people have and how hard their lives are. Then, if you still decide to take away the humble scraps they have managed to string together, look them in the eyes. Go and say it to their face.
- I almost missed her because only her hand was sticking out of the alley, holding a styrofoam coffee cup full of two quarters, three pennies and a nickel. She was too embarrassed to talk and she looked the opposite direction from the sidewalk. I guessed she was about 80. People driving $60,000 sedans and wearing thousand dollar suits walked by her to buy $7 coffees, put the change back in their slacks and hopped back in their Beamers. I was 17, broke, selfish. I gave her the two quarters. I never forgave them, me, the world. I’ve been fighting to help her(s), for real, ever since.
- He said he was from Chi-raq — aka, the gang he was in in Chicago fought so hard with the other gangs in his community, it was like a war. He would come into the center every morning when we first opened before it got busy and spit me his newest raps. One day he overheard someone with developmental disabilities wanted to learn to play the drums. He came in every week to teach her, both of them gleefully laughing for an hour every time. You’d never want to fight him but he was the gentlest person underneath and he could make anyone smile. I knew him for three years. He was houseless the whole time. He was in jail four times. He died of a heroin overdose before “fentanyl” was a word people knew. He was 23. I’m crying while I write this.
- 6’2” 300 pounds, five kids, two jobs, no car. I’d pick him up and drive him home sometimes, I don’t know how he got to work. He showed me loyalty in a way I never knew was possible. He had my back like I’ve never experienced. He (was?) extremely smart, hard-working and entrepreneurial. He experienced crushing racism from the moment he got to Vermont. He finally had enough one day and just couldn’t take one more racial slur and beat up the person dishing it bad enough to be in jail for a really long time. Long enough that I couldn’t keep his job for him when he got out. We lost touch. Big Knock, if you’re reading this, hit me up, brother. I hope your life is better now.
- He used to be in charge of inventory and logistics on aircraft carriers. He cataloged every bolt and antenna. His voice was melodious and articulate, richly timbered and booming. He spoke with a delicious Southern drawl and peppered his speech with phrases like “articulated diverticulitis” just because he could. He was smart in a way you only encounter a few times in a lifetime and he loved to use language like Rubik’s cubes — stringing words together in ways you never would have thought of that seemed like obvious and joyful solutions once you saw them in that new way. He had “Command Presence” police chiefs and generals would kill for.
If you heard him talking in the dark, you’d think he was a preacher. When you saw him, you’d wonder if he’d showered that month. He’d sleep all night on the bench downtown, no matter the weather. People used to cut neck holes in contractor bags and put them over him like a poncho when there was freezing rain and hail, they were so worried he’d die on that bench. The last time I saw him, he was upside down in a garbage can in front of Northfield Savings Bank, getting returnables. That was so long ago, I’m pretty sure he’s dead.
5. She always wanted to be an opera singer but I always thought she sounded more like Joni Mitchell — pipes, either way. Played the piano like an angel. Heard voices that tormented her like a snarling pack of dogs, and she’d let them have it right back. Passersby didn’t understand and were always calling the cops on her, out of kindness and concern — maybe. She’d disappear for months at a time and go on fabulous road trips before I’d finally get a call from a psych hospital in New York City or Boston or Des Moines and help her figure out how to get back home to Vermont. She loved her son fiercely and shared heartwarming details about him when there was no one else around. She hasn’t been allowed to see him for over three decades.
6. His daughter found a dead body when she was living outside with his ex, so he moved to Vermont to help keep an eye on her. He’d been living outside year round for about 20 years and had gotten really good at it, but he really wanted an apartment. He used to go south in the winter, camp down there and come back to Vermont in the spring, but he couldn’t anymore now that he was worried about his daughter. He loved heavy metal and lifting weights. He had a big scar on his eyebrow that scared people, so he shaved his eyebrows off to stop people from noticing, but that might have scared them more. He used to make the biggest bonfires you’ve ever seen out of old railroad ties and watch them burn and drink handles of liquor. The cops would always find them, but I think he wanted them to, like, “Hi, boys, you got me again — but that’s a good one right? Best yet!” I helped him move all his stuff from one place you’re not supposed to camp to another place you’re not supposed to camp one day. It was pretty conspicuous; subtlety was not his forte. He died a few years back, after a dear colleague finally got him an apartment after 20 years of being homeless. It broke whatever part of my heart hadn’t been broken yet.
7. When I worked for the state, we did a lot of mass feedings during Covid. The first one had enough food for 5,000 people and 10,000 cars showed up. When we ran out of food, we realized someone had to tell everyone who wasn’t getting food that they weren’t, and that someone was me. I walked down the line and people who had been there since 7 a.m. were smiling at me because they finally thought I was giving them good news now that it was 5 p.m. Those smiles didn’t last for long when they learned what was really happening. Most were unimaginably gracious, given what they had been through. Some were irate. The ones who broke me pleaded with me to try to get food, not realizing that there just wasn’t any:
A woman in her 80s told me she had soiled herself in Depends because she didn’t want to lose her place in line going to the bathroom with her walker, and, “Couldn’t I just have a little food? I’m small, I don’t need much.”
A woman pointed to her husband in the passenger seat of her truck. He had balled-up fists and seemed so angry he could almost hear him buzz but he just stared out the window. She said, “He’s a disabled combat veteran; are you sure he’s not supposed to get any food?”
A man took off his hat and showed me the jagged shark-bite-looking scars on his skull and said, “I think they call it a TBI. Does that make me eligible? I’m here to pick up for my neighbor’s, too.”
8. Someone called the governor’s office because she had no heat and it was going to be minus-15 that night. We talked on the phone and she agreed to come with me to the emergency housing hotel site. I drove to her house, and waited while she put everything she decided to bring with her from the last eight decades of her life in a plastic Shaw’s bag. The shelters and hotels the state uses for general assistance were all full. I managed to convince someone at a hotel I’d never go to to rent me a room for her. It was rough.
I escorted her to the door and made sure she knew how to lock it and gave her strict instructions not to open it for anyone. I made sure her phone and charger worked. I left my card on the table. On the drive home, I realized she had no food, no money, no way to get any all weekend. I turned around and called the local homeless shelter. They moved heaven and earth to get me some leftover Everybody Eats meals they had in their freezer. By this time it was 8 p.m. My day had started at 7 a.m. I hadn’t seen my kids that morning. I wanted to see them that night. I went to the shelter and got the meals. I drove them back to her. I noticed she didn’t have a microwave or a minifridge or a fork or a spoon in her room. I drove away anyway.
On the way home, I imagined my grandma staying in that hotel, waiting for those frozen meals to thaw, eating them with her hands, wondering if her cats would be alive when she got back home.
9. I was walking back to my car from a meeting and found a woman naked and covered in excrement standing in the middle of traffic. I talked to people in the cars to see what people had tried. They said she’d been there for 45 minutes. They’d called the cops and the screeners and nobody could do anything. They were just waiting it out.
10. She’d just fled from a domestic violence situation with her beautiful brown baby. No domestic violence shelters had an opening. No general assistance hotels had an opening. I used my relationship with a hotel owner to find a room anyway. I moved her carseat and her diapers and boxes of toys and baby food and clothes, and everything else she’d been able to carry with her from her old life to my car, and drove them to the hotel and moved them in.
It was in the high 80s. There was no air conditioner and the windows didn’t open. Most of the lights and outlets didn’t work. There was no mini fridge or microwave in her room. The room phone didn’t work but she had a phone that she could only use data to text with. There was no Wi-Fi, so it wouldn’t work. I made sure her phone and charger worked and found an outlet that worked and made sure the door locked and gave her the number of every domestic violence/family/child resource I knew about and introduced her to the woman who was the live-in hotel manager, who let her store her food in her personal fridge so it wouldn’t rot, who promised they’d fix her room in the morning. I told her to just hold on for one more night, and left them there. I drove by Black Lives Matter sign after Black Lives Matter sign all the way home.
11. He was beautiful, and funny, and smart, and jacked — I have to say that last part because he would have wanted to note that he was chiseled; he worked hard to be that way and it was very important to him. He wasn’t a narcissist worker-outer; he just had a body that could do things most people’s couldn’t and he liked to see how far it could go, sort of like a scientist. He was a beam of pure light, a once-in-a-million scratch-off ticket. I taught him how to use power tools and do carpentry. That wasn’t a good enough workout for him so he’d do pull-ups and dips on the floor joists all day long. He’d walk around town with a tow chain draped across his neck like a Busta Rhymes necklace on steroids to get an extra workout “passively” when he wasn’t working out “actively.” He died of an overdose or maybe he was killed on purpose with an intentionally tainted drug supply based on a trafficking-related altercation — I’ve heard different stories and nobody really knows for sure. He was 26. I can still barely talk about it, it hurts so bad.
12. He lived in a school bus before they ever had a place you could call a house. The first one was a shack called “the cedar cabin” that had cracks through the walls you could see the trees through, like windows. If you walked across the floor upstairs, it would lean in whatever direction you were walking. Dinner was whatever you could cook in tinfoil in the wood stove, water came from the creek, the bathroom was a smaller shack across the yard. There were other, better houses later. But also sexual abuse from friends’ older brothers and campground attendants and horrific bullying from peers.
Eventually he dropped out of school and ran away from home. He lived under bridges and reached into Dumpsters for dinner and sometimes grabbed food and sometimes grabbed excrement. He stood on medians and flew signs for enough money for something off the dollar menu and enough 40s to stop thinking about it all. But he got second chances, and tenth chances and finally found the people who loved and helped him in the right ways. He got degrees and fancy jobs and letters after his name. And then he wrote a letter.
If you’re going to take away their chance, don’t hide in your office; don’t use numbers to describe people and arrange them to pretend it’s all going to be fine. Go and say it to their face.