Classism and Activism: Survival and Democracy

This is the beginning of a series on the experience of homelessness and activism in Brattleboro, Vt. Part One will look at the issue of homelessness in Brattleboro, through the voice of a homeless Brattleboro resident, and Part 2, to be published in the coming weeks, will look at a group of activists in Brattleboro, largely through the Windham County Action Newtwork.

Part One: Survival.

A few names in this story have been changed for reasons of safety and privacy.

Brattleboro, VT. – In July of 2017, The Brattleboro Reformer and Vermont Digger published a story entitled, “Brattleboro Seeks Panhandling Solutions,” in which town select-board members and business owners raised concerns over what seemed, to them, to be a rise in homelessness, loitering, begging, and what they, and both newspapers, called “panhandling.”

The article starts on an oddly centrist note: “When someone asks Brandie Starr for money on the streets of Brattleboro, she often offers to buy the person a sandwich … ‘I’ve never had anyone turn me down,’ Starr said.” It is a sweet little way to begin the article, I suppose, but unfortunately – albeit possibly not consciously – it conforms to the stereotype that the homeless should not be trusted with money, which, further, implies that it’s okay to judge the homeless for how they might spend their money.

The article went on to continuously invoke the phrase “panhandling,” and it seems, in the beginning of the story, still unclear what the nature of the community’s concern is going to be. All that is initially introduced is that there are growing concerns about homelessness and panhandling in Brattleboro, or, as select-board member Tim Wessel said, according to the Vermont Digger piece, “Regardless of your personal opinion on the topic … it’s enough of a legitimate concern to enough of our community that I think we, as a select-board, should try once again to give it some attention,” but then we get to the real problem, and what that problem largely seemed to have meant at the select-board meeting, and why it was brought to select-board meeting in the first place.

The following is from The Vermont Digger article:

“The goal is ‘to really get some numbers, if we can, about the frequency of panhandling and/or harassment,”’said Michelle Simpson-Siegel, the alliance’s board president.

“Anecdotally, though, some say the situation seems to be getting worse. ‘Our merchants are having to ask people to leave their stoop, their storefront, daily,’ Simpson-Siegel said.

“While poverty is a complex social issue, ‘crippling our downtown businesses and crippling the downtown economy does not help this issue,’ she told Selectboard members during a recent meeting. ‘It is not a news flash to anyone here that people panhandling in storefronts deters customers from entering the stores.’

“Brattleboro resident Dick DeGray, whose wife owns a Main Street business, said panhandling is most common in high-traffic areas such as the Harmony Lot and the Main Street bridge near the Brattleboro Food Co-op.

“‘When you’re walking around downtown, you can get hit five or six times,’ DeGray said. ‘If you wonder if that’s not having an impact, it is.’

“DeGray said aggressive panhandlers cause safety concerns and that the resulting word of mouth could hurt downtown businesses.”

The article goes on to quote the police chief, saying that you should “call police if a panhandler acts belligerent; invades personal space or blocks a path; or initiates physical contact.” The article fails to raise the simple question: shouldn’t you call the police on anyone belligerently breaking the law and causing, or threatening, physical harm, whether they are a panhandler or not?

The article does cite the social service group Groundworks Collaborative’s survey of the “panhandling problem,” which, though it was not broad enough to be statistically significant, revealed genuine conflict leading to homelessness and a very difficult life among those who are homeless. The article also does include voices at town meeting on “the other side” of the problem, meaning those who considered the interests of the homeless over the business owners when they spoke, and the town meeting that the article covers shared similar qualities of pseudo-bipartisanship. But there were no perspectives in the story from the homeless people themselves.

The ultimate problem was summed up in Tim Wessel’s comment, according to the article, when he said in the town meeting, “I’d like to approach this issue with compassion both for our neighbors we see on the streets and for our neighbors who are the merchants who keep our downtown vibrant,” but the article fails to point out that it is disingenuous to treat these two groups, merchants and homeless people, with equal care, attention, and democratic opportunities, since they do not have an equal amount of these to begin with, which is, in many ways, where the problem starts. The merchants don’t need as much help as the homeless people, or as much of a voice at town meeting. They shouldn’t be treated with equal care to the homeless, they should be treated with less care than the homeless. The homeless need more care, more opportunity. I would hope it’s not even controversial to say that.

Furthermore, as Brendan Tang pointed out in his Letter to the Editor on the subject,

“Rage is an inevitable reaction to a society that can countenance leaving its most poor and vulnerable literally out in the cold. Panhandling isn’t a ‘problem’ in the sense that it’s unsightly — that it makes tourists feel bad for having a nice meal at a nice restaurant while someone else digs around in the trash — it’s a problem in the sense that it’s a symptom of desperate poverty.”

I moved to Brattleboro just over a year ago. I know many of the homeless people, some more than others. The first thing I’d like to say about them is that they generally don’t like the phrase “panhandler.”

I have spent many hours of my life with the homeless community of Brattleboro, the same way I’ve spent many hours of my life getting to know the rest of the community in Brattleboro. I’ve made a point of trying to give several dozen dollars of each paycheck to a different homeless person every two weeks. Over the summer, I learned the youth center I was working for had pounds of leftover food at the end of every day, and so introduced myself to what is known to Brattleboro Locals as “The Wall” – an alley way in between an old semi-open repair shop and a parking lot with a long concrete wall upon which one can sit or sleep. The wall is the central meeting point for the homeless of Brattleboro. Over the summer, we’d just walk large containers of food, plastic silverware and paper plates straight over to The Wall at the end of the day. Some days we fed as many homeless people with leftovers as we had children with the initial meals.

The homeless population of Brattleboro is no abstraction to me. I consider many members of the homeless community in this town my friends. There is no mention in the article of the complications around grouping a whole set of individuals into one idea, one stereotyped set of behavioral patterns, aspirations, and threats. Is this not, finally, the definition of prejudice? Is not the whole tone of most of this community discussion a form of normalized prejudice, taking place largely in the absence of those with whom it is concerned? If this is the case, is the term panhandling not a kind of slur? Particularly if the group that phrase is being applied to does not enjoy having that label imposed upon them?

Furthermore, aren’t those who are the real threats to our society not homeless, but in mansions? Do they not write policy, control stock, employ millions, oversee the military, etc…? Why do the people in town with money get to turn to the people in town with no money and say, “My life is hard because of you,” with no sense of irony, let alone shame? How did we, a largely self-proclaimed liberal town, allow for a culture to arise that allows – indeed encourages – the powerful to claim that they are victims because of the powerless? Furthermore, have not business owners in very historically frightening times often claimed that a certain group of powerless people was making business operations harder for a more powerful group? The claim that those who cannot afford, or are not allowed, to shop in certain businesses are the ones hurting those businesses is not a new leap of privileged mental and economic gymnastics. Has this racist and classist social phenomenon not been directed at Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, young people and others in a wide range of the most disrespectful, harmful and oppressive ways?

The poverty rate in Brattleboro is 19.3 %, according to MIT’s Data USA, about five percent higher than the national average. Poverty, joblessness, homelessness, and the stagnation of small business are unlikely problems to be solved on a large scale in the coming years. People will have to either side with the powerless or the powerful, but it will be increasingly hard to side with both, if it was ever possible, as select-board member Wessel suggested he hopes to do above.

There was coverage on this subject in the three main papers in the area, The Brattleboro Reformer, The Commons, and Vermont Digger, all the way up to the fall, and the controversy came up in different ways again, too extensive to get into here, on the efforts to move the homeless shelter to another part of town, in part to create more space for it. There’s no room to get into to that here, but the tone of these conversations was basically consistent. Indeed, an early September article on the subject in The Reformer was even more offensive. Finally, The Commons published, on their front page, an article entitled, “There Are Homeless Babies in Brattleboro,” to their credit, about a former homeless woman, now a social worker, in Brattleboro, which was timely and powerful, and the first piece I had come across from any of the papers that actually talked about the experience of being homeless more than the experience of being a business owner who doesn’t like to smell the homeless.

But the story continues up to now, and more will be written on it in each paper, and the narrative largely continues within this, in my view, elite, privileged framework.

I first met George in the early spring of this past year. I was coming out of the Transportation Center and he was standing on the sidewalk, holding a cardboard sign that read, “At least I’m not Trump.” I gave him ten or fifteen bucks just for not being Trump. He was right. He deserved his fifteen bucks more than Trump deserves anything he has. I didn’t know George at all yet but I did know for sure that he was not as bad as Trump.

George is Native American, South Dakota Sioux, Ojibwa, of the Chippewa Tribe. He is a father of three. Mordeci, ten years of age, is his son. Dyani is his daughter, whose age I seem to have missed, and Savannah is his daughter who died of Infant Death Syndrome at two weeks old. George wears a felt patch of a lady bug on his clothes in memory of Savannah. George and Savannah’s mother had bought a little lady bug costume for Savanna to wear on her first Halloween before she was born, and so he wears the patch in her memory. The last time he saw his children was four or five years ago, around Easter. He hasn’t seen them since for reasons he did not want to discuss.

George sat down with me one morning in my apartment recently and told me how he came to be homeless in Brattleboro, starting with the past “two or three years” of his life. It was clear that he could have started as far back as he wanted to and still more would’ve been relevant, but that was both as far back as seemed most relevant to me, and the period of his life he was comfortable sharing the most about.

Two to three years ago, George was the assistant manager, maintenance person, and housekeeper for a motel in Rapid City, South Dakota, “basically runnin the whole place,” he said, where his aunt was the manager. “She was a paraplegic, so she couldn’t get up the second floor,” he told me. “Only twice we got her up the stairs,” but it was alright, he said, and he had a job and a place to stay, until his aunt got removed from her position, and he got fired soon after for reasons he felt were unclear.

Before he got fired, George had started dating one of the tenants at the motel, and upon his removal, running out of money and without a job, he and the woman moved into the Motel across the street, spending the last of their money on the place to stay to buy time while making a plan. Soon after he moved in, the maintenance man at that Motel went to jail, and George asked the manager to take the maintenance person’s place and was hired.

“I didn’t know what I was gonna do at that point. But I’m glad I didn’t just give up. Probly wouldn’t be sittin here today if I had, if I hadn’t found a way to keep that place,” said George. “It’s funny how the smallest things, the littlest decisions you make, are so critical. But yeah I didn’t ever think I woulda ended up homeless in my life,” he continued and, turning away, under his breath, said, “My mistake, it was my mistake.” After a brief silence he continued telling his story.

“I mean I had opportunities, resources out there, job here and there. It was my mistake but I turned out alright. It was my girlfriend of the time – she decided to buy us two bus tickets. Nonrefundable. Hundred and eighty six dollars or some shit like that, while I was at work dude. She came into my work and says, ‘I bought these tickets and we’re leaving.’ I mean, we were kind of behind on rent but the dude said he was gonna work with us.” George said his girlfriend at the time knew people in Brattleboro but he did not. “I just went with her because she already bought the ticket, and I was like, ‘fuck it.’” He also said he had been wanting to travel for a longtime, and thought, “I’ll check out Vermont.”

“The bus-ride was great,” he continued, “I was excited – I mean I wasn’t excited really. I was kinda scared actually. I don’t like change too much. I knew I was kind of in over my head, too. She made it sound like everything was gonna be fine. ‘Just get on the bus you’ll be fine.’ I dunno I was scared.

“But then we got off the bus finally and we camped out near exit three, right behind the CITGO, past where all the truckers park n’ shit, there’s a big patch a woods. We had a little tent. It was fun at first dude. Just got into town. I didn’t have shit, didn’t know left from right here. Didn’t know anyone. I liked this place when I first came here. I guess I just didn’t have a lotta resources though.”

George and his girlfriend of the time broke up within weeks of arriving in Brattleboro. She knew people in the area and had a place to go but George stayed behind the CITGO off exit three, as the ties available to her were not available to him. “I remember when I realized I was homeless. I was just kind of wandering,” George continued. “I didn’t know where da go and I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know about The Wall yet. But there was this guy – Dennis – and he would just chill outside the gas station.”

Dennis is another homeless Brattleboro resident, who has been here much longer than George. Dennis would sit on a rock by the sidewalk in front of the CITGO, George said, “and he would just chill there and wait all day, just bored I guess, just kinda waitin’ for nothin’, ya know, and it’s one those gas stations no one ever stops at, and so I went by and chilled with Dennis a few times and we’d just hang out for hours. Usually one of us had pot somehow, lot a times we didn’t and we’d both just sit there bored as fuck.” Dennis is also from California, “but not from L..A. like me,” George was quick to note. It was Dennis who brought George to The Wall, which, if nothing else, was a place to be, and feel welcome, and he began spending time there more frequently.

“Not much happened after that. I was really confused,” George continued. Tried looking for work everywhere I could, took nine fucking months to get an ID.” When George moved to Brattleboro, he didn’t have ID, a social security card, or a birth certificate, and other hold ups, most of which you often need to have one of to get the next, and which cost some amount of money to acquire. Of course, if you need ID because not having one is preventing you from getting a job, the cost of the ID itself puts you in an endless cycle. Furthermore, by the time George had his ID, it was hard to get a job as an established local homeless person. “Being new to this town, I didn’t know where da go, didn’t use my resources very well, actually I was completely oblivious to most of them,” and he also described several experiences of people who needed work not wanting to hire him.

At first, in addition to sleeping in the patch of woods past the CITGO, George “slept on The Wall, just the most convenient place,” he said. “Nobody cared if I was there.” In winter and fall he slept in the shelter. Now he sleeps under the bridge near a bar downtown.

“One night I got drunk,” he said, describing an experience about seven or eight months back, “and I couldn’t find my camp-sight behind the gas station, stumblin around n’ shit back there, and I fell and broke my fuckin ankle. So then I was homeless with a broken ankle. Shoulda seen that thing dude it was like three quarters of a softball.”

George said that just about every day he would crutch his way into town from exit three and go down to The Wall, “and just sit there for awhile,” he said, “because I didn’t know where else to go. But people were hangin out. I was makin friends. First question I got was, ‘hey, are you Indian?’ I used ta look at em sideways and be like, ‘I’m Native American Motherfucker.’” George elaborated on the issue of race and some of the ways it factors socially into his oppression and others’ perception of him. “Most people were like – I don’t know what it is – they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah my grandfather was part whatever Native American,’ and I’m like I don’t care. One you’re probly lying and two you don’t needa tell me that. I don’t walk around like, ‘Hey, I’m George, I’m Native American.’”

George returned to the subject of his living conditions. “After winter started and my ankle was broken I was pretty much staying at the Drop-in Center a lot a the time, and then by the tracks under the bridge when the winter ended. Every morning fuckin train gives me a panic attack at seven AM. Oh except Sundays. Sundays I sleep good.”

George talked more about his experiences, positive and negative alike, with the local Brattleboro residents, including the more merchant-oriented crowds, describing them as “really discouraging. You know how many people walk by me and I say hello and they just fuckin fart at me and get all weird? Really dude? I don’t even deserve a fucking hello? I always get the classic ‘get a job’ comment. Usually when people say mean things it has to do with my signs.

“One time somebody got super pissed off about my sign. They degraded me. It got to me. I was outside the Food Co-Op. I don’t even remember what they said, just it was something about my sign, and it really hurt me.” I asked George what his sign had said that day, and he told me it read, “I love my life. Anything helps.” “So anyway somebody walked by,” he continued, “they were kinda an older person, and they had some smart comment about my sign and it really got to me. I remember I walked over to the wall and I just started crying and breaking everything I could find in my backpack. At first I was just sort of panicked and I was looking for something in my bag and I couldn’t find it so I just started throwing shit. Smashing shit. Everybody at The Wall started freaking out a little bit. No one really knew what to do even though they got it. Somebody gave me a beer and eventually I calmed down. I was alright.”

Later, he told me about his fondest memory of interacting with the people of Brattleboro. “It was the Fourth of July,” he said. “I still had my broken ankle but I just got off my crutches. So I’m walkin into town – just barely. Didn’t exactly know where I was headed. I was just like, ‘let’s go find some people.’ So I made it halfway across town to Memorial Park and saw some people sittin on the corner there, by the entrance to the park, and I was like, ‘well maybe I can just hang out with these guys.’ They didn’t mind. I mean I didn’t know them or anything. I wasn’t really hangin out with them – I mean they weren’t homeless; they were just some big ass family. There was like twenty of em. But they made room for me and they were like, ‘you can hang out here’ and we just watched the fireworks together. And then I limped my ass back up Putney Road, that only took two fuckin hours, but I went to sleep thinkin, ‘I’m glad I got to see that at least dude.’”

“Trust nobody,” George told me is the most important lesson he learned about friendship and homelessness. Among other details, he shared many stories of having his things stolen, including all of his clothing.

But his closest friend, he told me later, is Marie, his current girlfriend. George and Marie met at The Wall almost a year ago. She was “quiet as fuck,” said George, “and I didn’t say shit cuz I’m quiet as fuck, too, and I was new here and everything, but I introduced myself and we just kinda kept hangin out at The Wall every day, gettin’ closer and closer.” George and Marie love each other. George says he does trust Marie, and they are still together today.

Asked if he could communicate anything about his experience, or the experience of his loved ones, to the people of Brattleboro, George said, simply, “I’ll take bets all day long. Take a walk in my shoes. You won’t make it twenty four hours.”

Before leaving, when I asked him if he thought the interview went alright, if there was anything else he’d like to share, he said, “Ya don’t needa share much dude. World is basic. Shit rolls downhill.”

Matthew Vernon Whalan is a writer currently living in Vermont.