Walking The Streets of Brattleboro

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.

Comments | 8

  • Lamplighter

    We could eliminate homelessness overnight if we had the will.
    Cuba has already done so (almost – there are still a small number of unreconstructed “vagabundos” in the bigger cities).
    I believe we’re making progress here in Bratt. I’ve been told that the former Lamplighter on Putney Road is in the process of conversion to provide residences.
    A friend jokingly refers to “Homeless Depot” also on Putney Rd.. How much longer will it remain empty? Wouldn’t the owner be better served with a small rental income instead of none at all?
    As they used to say in the “B” movies: “Ve Haff Vays!”.
    So, let’s use ‘em!

    • Lamplighter

      The project seems to moving along quite quickly. Looks like they aren’t too far from having it all fixed up and ready for use.

      I agree. Let’s do insane things like provide homes to homeless and money to the poor. Crazy things, like feed the hungry.

      Lise may have to leave again, though, I’m afraid. New buyer will certainly want an inspection at some point. : )

  • Homeless Depot

    The owner of that space is definitely receiving rent, and plenty of it. Home Depot continues to hold the lease. That situation will continue until a new renter comes along willing and able to pay as much or more.

  • Lowe's

    When H-D first opened, it was rumored that they only did it to prevent Lowe’s from opening in Brattleboro

  • Nightfall

    When I was on the street, homeless, in NYC nearly 40 years ago I did a lot of walking and having nowhere to go, occasionally talking with a stranger. It could be interesting, drifting without workaday pressures . But I dreaded nightfall. Being alone and feeling unsafe at night, for me, epitomizes what it means to be homeless.

    I was able to couch-surf with friends for a time. After awhile, though, your welcome runs thin and once again you find yourself on the street, facing nightfall.

    I discovered the Staten Island ferry, where for a dime you could lay down on a bench for a half hour. I got really good at being the last one to head off the ferry in the hope of being slow enough to get caught up in the crowd entering so that I could stay on for the return trip without spending another dime.

    Trouble was, there was a cop patrolling the ferry, and if he saw you horizontal: With his nightstick he would hit the bench next to your head with a loud TWHACK and warn you to get off when the ferry lands.

    It made no sense to me. Who was hurt by someone sleeping on an uncrowded ferry? And if homeless people were to be chased away everywhere, then where were we supposed to go?

    I hooked up with two other young guys and each night we would take turns: Two guys would sleep while one guy stayed awake to warn us to sit up when he saw the cop approaching.

    I did not know about any shelter, but I probably would have been more nervous about safety in a shelter than on the ferry.

    I was also homeless, briefly, in Buffalo. I started out on the street there with 72 cents in my pocket, and by the next day I had $12 from washing dishes in a diner. I also had a free meal there.

    To sleep I went to the bus terminal, and got by for awhile by pretending to read a book while sleeping sitting up. Somehow I got to speaking with an elderly African-American lady who had missed her connection, and had to wait several hours for the next bus that could take her home to Rochester, NY.

    It was nice for both of us to have someone to talk with instead of spending hours alone in the waiting room. At some point a cop came over and demanded to see my bus ticket. He was also African American and I wondered if he thought this seedy-looking white guy was trying to scam an elderly woman.

    Well, she chased him away and we continued to talk. She offered to buy me a ticket to Rochester, where she owned a home where she said I could stay in a room and get work at a day labor place.

    It was tempting, but there were people in Buffalo whom I thought might need me to be available. At times I have wondered how my life path might have been different if I had gotten on to the bus with the woman from Rochester.

    She gave me her address, and a week later I sent her a postcard to thank her for her kindness and the let her know that I was alright.

    • Great stories

      Thanks for posting this. I wonder if your experience would be any different today than 40 years ago (i.e., what’s changed)? The part about having to keep moving, stay on your feet, not appear to be sleeping — it must be really exhausting to go through every day like that.

  • half a million homeless

    . “HUD [US department of housing and urban development] estimates there are roughly half a million homeless people in the United States on any given night, in a country that is estimated to have roughly 18 million empty homes in it,”

    • Basic math

      This seems like a simple word problem in a low-level math class that just about any kid could solve.

      Q: If there are 18 million homes, and half a million people without homes, how many homes would be left over if each person without a home was given a home?

      A: 17.5 million homes!

Leave a Reply