BRATTLEBORO — Community members gathered at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden on Saturday evening to make connections with people over coffee and hear personal stories from locals about their experiences with homelessness.
Coffee & Conversation — Stories of Homelessness, is a seven-person team project that strives to end the stigma of homelessness in Brattleboro one conversation at a time. The Stories of Homelessness is a photography and video exhibit with a community art wall installation that demonstrates people who experience homelessness and people who have stable housing. The photographs at the exhibit were captured by Liz LaVorgna, owner of Core-Photo, and the video portions were put together by Wyatt Andrews, a video editor/shooter for Mondo Media Works in town. Saturday was the project's "opening event," but the exhibition itself has been open to the public since Dec. 5 and will be available for viewing until the end of the month.
"It's so vital that we are talking about connection in relation to homelessness and poverty because so often in my world, it's about numbers, statistics and how many people have stayed at the shelter, how many people are here from out of state or how many people are relying on government assistance for survival," said executive director at Groundworks Collaborative in Brattleboro, Josh Davis. "It's not the stories of survival that we get to hear. It takes away folks' humanity to be a statistic and a number and it numbs us as community members to what's going on because there's a disconnect there, so when we have an event like tonight, it's bringing back that connection."
According to LaVorgna, the inspiration for the entire project stemmed out of a comment that was made during a community forum on homelessness that was held at The Works Bakery Café last spring. The comment was made by Lawrence Wardlaw III, who is originally from western Texas and has since moved to town.
"At the forum Lawrence said, 'All I'm looking for is a hot cup of coffee and some warm conversation,' and then all of the sudden the light bulb went off over my head, and I was like 'oh my gosh, this is definitely a project and this is so simple,'" said LaVorgna.
About 75 people cycled in through the River Garden during Saturday's event. Guests observed photographs by LaVorgna that showed pairs of people in recorded conversations about homelessness. At the event, there also was an artwork project on display that was made possible by the River Gallery School, which offered two art sessions to people that are currently or formerly homeless. In addition to these two sessions, the River Gallery School extended a scholarship to three of the artists that participated in the sessions, which will allow them to continue their art at the school.
"The whole project has really been warm and fuzzy feelings all over because everybody is trying to support this project, they love it and want to get involved somehow," said LaVorgna.
Around 8 p.m. people gathered and were welcomed by the event's MC, Ezlerh Oresce. Oresce not only introduced each guest speaker to the microphone, but he also performed some improv beatboxing when the public address system did not cooperate with him. The audience laughed and cheered for him with applause.
Aside from silliness, Oresce told the audience of when he was "houseless," (as he prefers to call it) for one week in 2014.
"I would like for you to never say homeless again," said Oresce to the audience. "I would like the term houseless because I have never felt like I didn't have a home."
Oresce further explained that he believes home is through the connections people make day to day, not necessarily based on the shelter that people possess. However, he did note that when he was without a house, he experienced a "weird" feeling.
After Orece's introduction, the speeches began. All of the speakers were adults, and for Steven Palmer, 40, who spoke Saturday night, his story dated back to his early childhood.
"I was living on the street when I was 14 and that's where I went to school, where I ate and where I did everything," said Palmer. "I didn't really ask anybody for anything, I mean what are you going to do when a 14-year-old kid comes up to you and tries to ask you for a home or something to eat. I just couldn't do it, so I just stayed to myself and did what I could to survive."
Palmer was open when sharing about the details of his past. He told the audience how he had struggled with drug addiction and has been in recovery for about one year. Palmer said he believes that living on the street without a family was what led him to use drugs. He described the transformation from his past to the present day, when he talked about a photo of himself during his drug use, compared to the recent portrait that was captured by LaVorgna. Holding back tears, he said that side-by-side, the photos looked like two different people.
"In that older photograph you could see I just didn't care, I was lost, I had no soul in my eyes, I had nothing," said Palmer. "I didn't believe in anything."
Palmer said he has overcome those empty feelings and has seen his life improve for the better because of help from Groundworks.
"I have an apartment now, but I don't call that my home; my family is in here today and I owe these guys my life, because they helped save my life," said Palmer. He especially thanked Groundworks case manager, Effie Mayhew. "Groundworks is my family now."
Several other conversations during the event moved audience members to tears. Others, such as Brenda Siegel of Brattleboro, shared their stories in hopes of changing people's perception about homelessness. Siegal said she lost her house in 2011 from Tropical Storm Irene.
"We talk about homelessness as something irresponsible, but truth is, all of us are on the edge of homelessness all the time," said Siegel.
Before, during and after the event attendees were encouraged to donate money for the cause. People were also asked to donate their spare change into the project's "change for change" bucket. Though monetary donations were accepted that evening, LaVorgna said that throughout December, they are collecting items that are useful to homeless people, specifically those that are on their "10 under $10" list. The items on this list can all be purchased for under $10 each. Coffee & Conversation project is collecting these items at the River Garden in December and all donations will go to the Groundworks Drop-in center's Food Shelf. Items on the 10 under $10 list include toilet paper, deodorant, shampoo, feminine hygiene products, diapers of all sizes, toothpaste, toothbrushes, dish Detergent, laundry soap and wool socks.