In the last couple weeks, I’ve had many opportunities to experience Brattleboro as a homeless person. That’s, of course, an exaggeration. I’m not homeless. I just had to get out of the apartment so our landlord could show the house to prospective buyers. Nor had one anyone asked me to leave — I left voluntarily because I felt uncomfortable being there. But still and all, there I was downtown, at all hours of the day, killing time and feeling a little unmoored from what I had become accustomed to thinking of as “home.” The experience wasn’t fun, but it did give me an unusual perspective that proved to be educational.
For starters, I learned the slow walk of the person with nowhere to go — not aimless, but very, very leisurely. I learned to take the long cut everywhere, being in the opposite of a rush. I even began trying to look inconspicuous, although I blew that the day I had to carry the bright pink umbrella. All in all, I spent so much time strolling around downtown that I think some of the homeless people wondered if I was one of them.
As a non-homeless person, I had options not available to real homeless people. My clothes and person are generally clean and reasonably tidy and I can get away with walking through a shop looking at every single item in it for 40 minutes without provoking suspicion. I’m not followed and no one asks me to leave. If I buy some small thing on my way out, I feel like I’ve paid for my time, and I appreciated those shopkeepers for putting up with me.
Being down there at all hours, I had an opportunity to see things that I wouldn’t ordinarily notice. For instance, the roving bands of scruffy looking white guys wandering around with cell phones. It was hard to tell what their purpose might be, but they did appear to have one. They also seemed the least benign of the many people I encountered, having a way of suddenly overrunning you on the sidewalk, talking wildly and gesticulating. My instinct was to get out of their way.
But they were the exception. Most of the people I saw on my sojourns weren’t threatening at all, just sad.
And yet, I was not sympathetic. On the rainiest day of the week, for instance, I had an unusually long time to wander and was not in a good mood. I went out of my way to avoid the panhandlers I saw, going as far as crossing the street prematurely when I saw one eying me up. Later that day, in the midst of a complete downpour, I passed a young girl standing forlornly with her sign. She asked me for a dollar, but I just smiled at her and kept going. I knew I was being mean and unkind but I was feeling mean and couldn’t bring myself to do the right thing, even as I pondered the irony of the situation.
The next day, I was back downtown again. There were more homeless people and people who seemed to be milling around waiting for something and then there were just people. It was late, maybe 6 pm or after. If you’ve been out walking around after normal business hours, you know that the town pretty much dies by 5:30. No one on the street in the residential neighborhoods, very little car traffic, and downtown acquires a different cast of characters.
As I crossed the Whetstone Bridge by the Co-op to start the trek home, I ran into another young woman with a sign. She was more beat up than the girl I’d seen the day before, and when she asked me for money, I decided to give her the dollar and listen to her story. She told me she had been on the street four days, something about a friend’s house falling through, something about being on a housing list. She was tiny, worn out way past her years. If any part of her story was true, it was the part about sleeping outside. She had the muddy clothes to prove it.
The problems of Brattleboro are always visible downtown, and based on what I saw in the last couple weeks, I would say the pressing issues are still poverty, homelessness, and opioid/drug addiction. I knew this was the case, but what I didn’t know was the extent of it. There really are a lot of people downtown with problems. And with the exception of the loud guys with cell phones, it didn’t look as though any of the others really wanted to be there. Even if they were panhandling for drug money, and I’m sure some were, their faces showed their resignation.
Resigning oneself to one’s fate is not a generally approved practice, but if you happen to be penniless in a society based on money, giving up may be a reasonable path to choose. That’s because, for low income people, your chances of “success” are low to begin with. What hope is there of bucking that trend if you’re already falling apart at age 27? It’s small wonder that some more fragile beings end up on the street, on drugs, or both.
My temporary “homelessness” was an enlightening experience, but not one I would willingly repeat. I don’t like having nowhere to go. Nevertheless, it did teach me to have more empathy for people who have no choice but to live this way. Walking the streets for a few hours a day is one thing, but imagine doing that every day and sleeping outside to boot? No wonder these folks look tired. And yet it goes on.
So regardless of how difficult life may feel at various times, it’s worth remembering that things can always be worse. With that in mind, I find myself newly grateful to have a home at all — even if it isn’t really mine.