Richard Davis: 'Those people' remind us that we still have a lot of work to do


There are a number of social problems that society tries to fix. Eliminating them is an unrealistic goal. Among them are homelessness and drug addiction. We have been living with both problems almost as long as people have been occupying the planet.

In our local community in the Brattleboro area a number of non-profit organizations have been working to try to support people who have lost their homes as well trying to address the root causes of homelessness.

We have the Windham-Windsor Housing Trust that has created a large number of affordable housing units throughout the area. But as good as their efforts have been there never seem to be enough affordable housing units to meet local needs. It is a problem that is not unique to our area and as long as we have people dedicated to meeting that need we can take credit for trying to create a more equitable society.

Then there is Groundworks Collaborative. They provide shelter on a short and long term basis for people as well as providing an extensive network of support services for people who want to make the effort to help themselves have a better life. They know that they will never eliminate homelessness, but they are showing that local efforts by compassionate and realistic people can make a difference in people's lives while enriching all of us in the process.

There are also other local organizations such as the United Way that are trying to soften the blow of homelessness and provide the support needed to help people take more control of their own lives. But even the best efforts of a community are never enough to solve complex problems and we have to accept the fact that some problems will never go away.

I have been reminded of these issues because of recent events in Brattleboro that have put the faces of homelessness front and center in the daily life of our little town. The homeless have become more visible in the area of local shops and people are starting to complain that they are afraid to go downtown because there are too many aggressive panhandlers and too many rough looking characters hanging around on local streets.

It is difficult to separate the homeless from those engaging in the illegal drug trade because there is always an overlap and hardly ever a clear separation of the two activities. Every town has to deal with the loss of a perception of street safety.

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Brattleboro has made a number of efforts to address the street problems and the police department and local human service agencies have continually stepped up to the plate to try to find ways to address bad public behavior, especially the kind of behavior that results from drug addiction and aggressive panhandling.

If local letters to the editor and other public comments are a good indication, it is starting to feel like Brattleboro is close to reaching some sort of crisis point in terms of dealing with these kinds of problems.     

I would like to offer my assessment of the current situation based on working in the human service area in Brattleboro for about 40 years. I served on the Morningside Shelter board for 13 years and helped to create the local Community Health Team as well as doing the initial assessment that led to the creation of a nurse outreach collaboration between Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and Groundworks.

The faces of homelessness that we are now seeing in Brattleboro, the people hanging around at bus stops and street corners, are few in number but they do not look like the rest of us. They remind us that homelessness is ugly, that homelessness is dirty, that homelessness often can only show faces of desperation and hopelessness.

Too many of us do not want to see the ugly side of society and we want to keep "those people" in their place so that the rest of us can feel safe. But "those people" are no different than the rest of us except that they have made bad choices that we have avoided and that they have been caught in a spiral of bad choices that they feel powerless to stop.

The ugliness needs to be there to remind us that we still have a lot of work left to do. Our lives may be a little more difficult because they are there, but our lives will never be as bad as the lives of "those people."

Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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