In 1990, outside the cafeteria of my college, I saw a job posted on a bulletin board full of similar notices about bikes lost or for sale or roomates wanted or whatever. Remember bulletin boards? It was a long, long time ago, but I remember the notice had a heart shaped symbol with an M inside of it, and said MainSpring House was looking for someone to answer the phone and help out in the kitchen on Saturdays. I had never heard of MainSpring House, but was interested in a job, so I called and was asked to come that same afternoon. I met Bill. I filled out an application form and got a tour of the place. It’s an old, very, very big house, there’s no other way to describe it. Brockton had once been a booming industrial town, known for shoe factories, and this must have been built by a shoe factory owner.
One half of the house was for families and the other was for single men who had to leave each day and come back at 4:30 to have a shower, supper and spend the night in a big dorm room with 50 beds. Homelessness had exploded in the 1980s, as Reaganomics shrank the middle class, cut social service programs and closed hospitals for mentally ill patients. Many of the people most hurt by these policies were minorities and Vietnam vetrans. I met alot of Vietnam veterans in my work with the homeless. I was studying history at university, and, because of my experience at MainSpring, I dedicated my senior thesis to homelessness. The Reagan years were brutal. Homelessness and Vietnam veterans were in the news all the time, (remember Rambo?) and presented serious economic and social issues that I was in the right place and time to study and get personally involved with. It changed my life.
I would work from 4 to midnight, first screening the guys who came through the door, getting a name and assigning a bed and a towel. Then I would go upstairs to the dorm and help the volunteers who had come to assist with the meal that evening. Then it was a lot of babysitting, checking guys in and out for their Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, maybe setting out some leftover food, intervening in any conflicts, breaking up fights, and mostly, getting to know hundreds of homeless men. Brockton is a famously “rough” town. These were men who were living HARD fucking lives with no money and no place to go. I heard some crazy, incredible stories about how people end up on the street and how they survive. Also, as my time working there went on, I began working with the families on the other side, mostly young women and their children. Like with the men, I would mostly babysit, but also help cook and fold laundry and just hang around and watch t.v. and laugh at In Living Color.
I worked there for over three years. I would usually work three days a week from 4 to 12 and then on Saturday in the family unit from 9 to 3. I don’t know how to explain how unique this experience was. I was in university, but spending most of my time at MainSpring. None of my friends or roomates in the priviledged, protected bubble of campus university life had any clue about this hard core underside of the city. I became particularly close with one man named Dani, a very stereotypical Boston Irish, who had a very short temper and could get very violent, very quickly. And he hated black people. Think of the cultural moment, with rap starting to get popular, the Rodney King riots…etc…we met one Saturday as I was on the way home and he was coming to wait in the intake line, and we went for a walk around the railroad tracks and we talked about university and having some dignity. That was a big thing to him. Dignity. And respect. And we agreed that we respected each other, and became good friends, lots of interesting conversation and salty Irish jokes.
I became a bit of a leader at MainSpring. I was young and strong and thought I could do anything. I hadn’t really failed at anything in life, yet. Funny to think back on that now. I was so young, but I would organize all the volunteers and really was a leader on the staff. There were some weekends, especially during the summer, when other staff would go on vacation, when I would work almost the entire weekend. I would work from 4pm on Friday to 8am Saturday morning, sleep there, and then do the same the next night….and then the next night…and then go back to my dorm on campus at 8 am monday morning. I would work 48 hours between 4 on Friday afternoon to 8 am Monday morning. I was making about 8 dollars an hour. I was 20. I was also a full time student, doing my student teaching, playing ice hockey, student government, even working other jobs in the summer.
It was on one of those double shift nights when a woman came to the shelter in the middle of the night. We didn’t have a place for her. I let her sit in the chair in the waiting room all night. When I left at midnight, I told her I’d take her to the train station…the “T”. On the way there, she said she couldn’t go back to the shelter she had been staying in in Boston. They had kicked her out for drugs. “So why are we going to the T station?” She had no idea what to do or where to go. I ended up calling my father. Remember it’s after midnight, and he lived an hour away. We slept at my Dad’s apartment and the next day I drove her, and my Dad (it was Father’s Day) back up to Boston and to the shelter she had been kicked out of to see if we could help. They let her back in. My Dad still talks about that Father’s Day, bringing this young black woman back to the shelter for battered women and convincing them to let her stay.
When I did my student teaching in the fall of ’91, I had the realization that maybe I should explore the world a bit before getting a teaching job. The grind of student teaching, and a generous and caring professor and advisor, convinced me to put teaching on the back burner and to continue with the social work experience. I was set to start working full time at MainSpring, but I still remember being in this advisor’s office, talking about my experience and my future and he said, “Wait a second, I was talking with a professor the other night about this….volunteer program…” and right then he picked up the phone and called the other professor and ten minutes later I was learning about the Holy Cross Associates, and this prof said that, based on my experience in MainSpring, he would certainly recommend me to the program, and was very confident I would be selected. I was. And I said goodbye to MainSpring. They hired Dani to take my place.
The Holy Cross Associates https://catholicvolunteernetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/DomesticBrochure-HCA.pdf sent me to Manitou Springs, Colorado. https://manitousprings.org/ I worked in a residental school for children who had been taken out of their home due to abuse, neglect or parents going to jail. Mostly abuse. It was a very sad, difficult place to work, but we tried to make it as much of a “school” as possible. The kids were really emotionally damaged. There were lots of therapy sessions and other interventions and training on how to restrain kids and all that stuff. I did whatever I could do to help, but I mostly kept my distance from everything and everybody. I was quite overwhelmed by the whole thing, and also, I was discovering the mountains, which occupied my thinking most of the time. The spiritual experience, discovering a new world. It was a year that changed my life, and it would not have been possible if I hadn’t answered that job notice on the bulletin board. Crazy.
It was the year in Colorado that directly led to my second year of volunteer service with Andre House in Berkeley/Oakland, California. It was an amazing opportunity to return to working with the homeless, while continuing my age of discovery. Andre House, fittingly, was a place where homeless men who had spent time at shelters like MainSpring, could live rent free while we helped them get clean and find a job and save some money. There were only six beds. Myself and a guy named Mike, who had been in the Navy and seemed so much older and mature than me (He was 27! He joined the FBI!). We lived there and apart from helping our six guests and taking care of the house, we would spend our days organizing other programs, like Project Housewarming, which was picking up donated furniture and food and delivering it to people who needed it. Or Night in the Streets, which, just like it says, meant bringing food and clothes out into the Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco streets to find the homeless people who preferred to live rough than go to a shelter. And on another night of the week we would have Surprise Night, picking up children from poor households, usually in East Oakland, and bringing them someplace for a meal and a surprise….like a movie, or McDonalds, or a picnic in the park, or the circus, or…one time, the airport, which was very, very fun. It was a full on, full time, 24 hour a day job. I got one day a week off, and would usually go camping. I was paid 120 dollars a month.
At Andre House, obviously, the contact and connection with the guys was much deeper. I lived with them. And often, if they didn’t have their own job, they would help us with those projects, so we were working together. And they could stay for as long as they needed to, but had to really be working on their recovery. One guy had been there for 8 or 9 months when I started, and 3 months later we decided he had to find another situation. When we told him, he disappeared. We cleaned out his closet and the boxes under his bed. You won’t believe it, but we found over $8,000 in his belongings. He was receiving disability checks for a nervous breakdown he had gone through that led to his homelessness. It seems he would cash the check and, I don’t know….just stuff the money in his pockets and in envelopes and forget about it. We put the money into an account, but never heard from him again, then one day delivering a box of food, we saw him in the Tenderloin, in San Francisco, and when he saw us he quickly took off and got lost in the crowd.
San Francisco is FULL of homeless people. It is quite striking when you actually see it and dig deeper into it. The Bay Area is a mild climate and has a lot of social services, due in part to more liberal politics, I guess. But more than the homelessness, it was the stark poverty of East Oakland that I remember. We would deliver food and furniture to people, and see their situation. The gangs, guns, drugs. I knew a disabled boy named Blue, disabled because his mom was addicted to crack, who could do little more than shout, he couldn’t really walk or sit up by himself, but he would make a gun with his fingers and shoot anyone in his sights, shouting BANG BANG!
San Francisco is also famous for being the gay capital of the U. S. I got involved with organizations that would ask for our help to reach gay men to pass out condoms and try to get clean needles to heroin addicts. Remember how huge AIDS was in 1993? I watched Philadelphia in the cinema with a group of homeless gay men… And cried at the end. That brutal end.
I got pulled over by the police when I was delivering furniture one morning because, the cop said, “The only white people we see in East Oakland are here buying drugs. And you don’t have your seatbelt on.” I did have my seatbelt on. I was handcuffed and put in the back of the police car while they searched for the drugs and checked my paperwork. I certainly looked like I might have bought drugs. I hadn’t had a hair cut for two years. The height of grunge in the biggest gangsta paradise outside of South Central L.A….
At some point during my year at Andre House, we applied for and received a grant to purchase a new, bigger house that we could remodel. Most of my last two months there was spent building the new Andre House. Building a house for the homeless. I wish I could go back in a time machine, just for one of those days. To see all those people again. There was one guest at Andre House, let’s call him Charles, who was a writer. He wrote poems and stories of his days on the street. He was probably close to 60 when I knew him. Maybe older. He would type at night at the dining room table, on a typewriter, and drive everyone crazy with the noise. Then during the day, he would go to the library and write in his notebook. He was such a friendly, thoughtful soul. And he was able, through some program at the library, get his work printed into small books with soft covers. I had three of his books, and wish I knew where they are now. As with most of my roomates at Andre House, we became good friends. (I just remembered New Years Eve, when all of Oakland shoots their guns into the sky, and Charles said, quoting Bob Dylan, “It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”) (I’m remembering another night when one of the guests relapsed, came home drunk on beer, packed his things and left, and Charles said we should go find him, so we did, and found him outside a bar, but couldn’t get him to come back, and Charles gave the man a hug, and said, “Please come on home to bed, son.” and the man started crying…but didn’t come.) (I’m remembering another time when we had a bed available, and we were interviewing a man who said that he had a job, but couldn’t save any money, and we asked why and he said, “Do you know how much crack costs?” And I said “no” and he said, “Well it ain’t free.” and I said, “Are you high right now?” And he said, “What the fuck you think?” I started to get a bit nervous. Charles had overheard the conversation, and he came in and said, “I think it’s time for you to get out and get your act together, that’s what the fuck I think.”) Thank you for those moments, Charles.
Well, at some point during this year at Andre House, as I started to think of what to do next, it seemed my experience would qualify me for social work, so I started looking at social work programs, and discovered that the University of Denver had a joint Social Work and Law program…four years, and you have a law degree and masters degree in social work. I took at course at University of California, Berkeley to pass the LSATs. I applied for this program, and was accepted. And THEN, I received a letter from a profesor there who said that my application had come to their attention because of my experience and that I should consider applying for the Chancelor’s Scholarship, which the law school awards to selected applicants who have demonstrated a committment to social causes, and working in public interest law. It’s a full tuition scholarship. Free law school. I often think about this professor who had taken the time to send this letter inviting me to apply for the scholarship. A letter, not an email. The man wrote a letter.
Well, I applied for the scholarship. I asked Charles to write a recommendation, which, since the professor mentioned it in the interview, I think made the difference in my acceptance. It was a beautiful letter of recommendation. It was real and true and heartfelt and Charles was a beautiful writer and I’m forever thankful for that letter and for having known him. I was one of six people chosen to receive the full tuition scholarship, and bid a sad farewell to Andre House of California. I sincerely, strangely, don’t know what happened, but Andre House of California is no longer active. It continues in Phoenix, however. https://andrehouse.org/
So, answering that job notice to work at MainSpring started a chain of events that led to me helping a whole lot of people, and, me getting a free ride through law school. I was immediately amazed and impressed with everyone I met there. Some real big brains, and even some bigger hearts. All the Chancelor’s Scholars, about 15 of us, in a school of about 1,000 students, met early in the year, and met the Chancelor and were told about the true need for public interest lawyers to protect and defend and even fight for people’s rights. The balance of power is so unbalanced. So, I did. The first year of law school is an insane amount of work and stress, but once I got through that, the next two years were really amazing and allowed me to do some really important work for the homeless in Denver.
With other Chancellor’s Scholars, I helped start a Public Interest Law Group in the school, which worked with the Poverty Law teacher and the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers (now called Equal Justice Works https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_Justice_Works) to create some real community outreach programs and legal representation. We got sent to Washington D.C. for training, and then to San Francisco for a regional conference, and I was able to visit the newly relocated and renovated Andre House that I helped build!
Through the work and support of those groups, and as part of the Poverty Law class in my second year of law school, I secured an internship with the Legal Aid Foundation https://www.legalaidfoundation.org/ and, found myself becoming a leader across the city in defending and helping the homeless, meeting with community leaders, and of course, the homeless themselves, to identify where and when and how we could help them, and not just with adminstrative tasks like securing health care, housing and disability support, but addressing the systemic obstacles to…and here I think of Dani from MainSpring…basic human Dignity.
The American Civil Liberties Union is perhaps the country’s most well-known defender of civil rights. https://www.aclu.org/ In my work with the homeless of Denver through my internship at Legal Aid, I discovered one particularly obscure, yet problematic, recurring problem. It was a coincidence really, that three men I met had been given a citation, and fined, for “loiterning for the purpose of begging”. In other words, they were standing outside a store asking people for change, or maybe on a street corner, holding a sign, and then would receive a ticket for loitering for the purpose of begging. Having by coincidence met three men who had been cited for this, I started looking for more. I found alot. None of them, of course, had paid the fine, which would lead to even greater penalties. A lawyer at Legal Aid put me in contact with Mark Silverstein at the ACLU of Colorado. I went to meet him, and brought the three homeless men who had been cited for loitering for the purpose of begging with me, and explained what else I had found through my research into the law. Mark was a small, slight, energetic, brilliant man, with bushy hair and mustache. He was immediately on board, and told me to write up the brief, find as many homeless people as possible who had been cited, and the ACLU would support the case. Sometimes, I think back to that meeting and can’t believe it was me.
Without getting too much into the legalese of the case – we won. The law was declared unconstitutional. Basically, it was too vague about what constitutes “begging”. Here’s a summary:
Jones v. City of Denver, No. 96-WY-1751 (D. Colo. 1996).
“Four homeless individuals, along with two non-homeless individuals with an interest in the information communicated by those who beg, brought an action against the City and County of Denver, Denver Chief of Police, and two police officers challenging the constitutionality Colorado’s state law making it a crime to “loiter… for the purpose of begging.” The parties reached a settlement agreement in which defendants stipulated that the law violates the Due Process Clause, and have agreed to a declaratory judgment and injunction prohibiting enforcement of the law in the City of Denver. The court approved the proposed settlement agreement and the state legislature subsequently repealed the suspect language.” https://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/crimreport/casesummaries_2.html
This was an important victory for the homeless of Denver, and the community of public interest lawyers and other organizations that helped the homeless considered it a landmark case across the country, setting precedent to fight similarly discriminatory laws in other jurisdictions. Mark argued in court because I hadn’t passed the bar exam, yet. I was still in my third year of law school, but it was my case and I was part of the case as one of the “two non-homeless individuals with an interest in the information communicated by those who beg.” I love that sentence. A few years ago, Mark, still the director of the ACLU in Colorado, sent letters to cities across the state who had similar laws, now being increasingly enforced as the economic crisis of recent years has sent more and more people into the streets. https://www.coloradoindependent.com/2016/08/31/aclu-puts-34-colorado-cities-and-towns-on-notice-repeal-your-loitering-laws/ The letter was essentially based on the research and brief I had prepared for the Jones case, which he refers to on page 3 of the letter. http://static.aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/2016-08-31-La-Junta-ACLU.pdf
That case is the foundation of the whole thing. That was my case. I did that. For the homeless.
I’ve moved very far away from the people living rough on the streets and under the bridges and in the bushes. You see people sleeping in cardboard boxes or subway stairs or doorways. People with everything they own in a backpack and a shopping carriage. People with no shelter from the hard rain. No where to go. Nothing to look forward to. Lost souls. It’s so sad. And that’s all I have to say about the homeless. I met and knew so many decent, strong people of dignity and hope during those years, and thinking about all of them now, that’s all I can say…it’s so sad.
Here’s a song about homelessness. Even flow. It’s not even… https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pearl+jam+even+flow+30+years+in+7+minutes
Freezin', rests his head on a pillow made of concrete, again Oh, feelin' maybe he'll see a little better, set a days, ooh yeah Oh, hand out, faces that he sees time again ain't that familiar, oh yeah Oh, dark grin, he can't help, when he's happy looks insane, oh yeah Even flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies Oh, he don't know, so he chases them away Someday yet, he'll begin his life again Life again, life again... Kneelin', looking through the paper though he doesn't know to read, ooh yeah Oh, prayin', now to something that has never showed him anything Oh, feelin', understands the weather of the winter's on its way Oh, ceilings, few and far between all the legal halls of shame, yeah Even flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies Oh, he don't know, so he chases them away Someday yet, he'll begin his life again Whispering hands, gently lead him away Him away, him away... Yeah! Woo...ah yeah...fuck it up... Even flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies Oh, he don't know, so he chases them away Someday yet, he'll begin his life again, yeah Oh, whispering hands, gently lead him away Him away, him away... Yeah! Woo...uh huh...yeah, yeah, fuck em up again...