Focus on Homelessness

Mostly Out of Sight…. But Never Out of His Mind

By Phil Wyzik, CEO, Monadnock Family Services

Not many people know they are there, and many in the community would rather keep it that way.  Some might be in the woods behind a major supermarket in Keene… others near the river a short walk from the Stone Arch Bridge… a cluster might be tucked away at Robin Hood Park… and a small group likes a tiny island in the Connecticut River between Hinsdale and Brattleboro.

Matt Primrose knows they are there because that’s his job.  For four year, he’s been Monadnock Family Service’s Outreach Worker trying to assist people in their transition from homelessness.  It’s good that he’s an outdoorsman, because lots of his time is spent walking through the woods visiting homeless people in their makeshift tents and encampments — out of sight from most residents of the county —this has become their only refuge.  Like a letter carrier, Matt’s out there in all sorts of weather.  His goal is to earn the person’s trust and figure out what next step they’d be willing to take to find a better place to live.

One day in a place the locals call “tent city” (population 20) not far from a nearby shopping center, Matt met Howard.  In the course of their conversation, Matt found out that the two had more than a few things in common, particularly much work experience in the building trades.  Howard, a pretty good carpenter, was now suffering from some neurological damage to his right arm and hand, a paralyzing affliction that would make it impossible for him to ever hold a hammer again.  Unable to make a living, the losses started to accumulate and Howard’s mental state declined, making his depression just about as numbing as his senseless limb.

“I’d say that 90% of the homeless people I meet have a mental health or substance abuse problem,” Matt asserts. “You have to approach them respectfully and carefully.  I try to be a real person, somebody they can trust because I sincerely want to get them some help.”

So with Howard, Matt begins slowly with a gentle and hopefully engaging conversation about what he needs, what he might accept, and what Matt knows about the people and services in the Monadnock Region that might have something to offer Howard.  For some it might be a ride to a local shelter, for others a stop at the Keene Housing authority or a private landlord. For most it’s a trip to the local office of the Department of Health and Human Services to find financial or other assistance.  His goal with Howard is to figure out how he can help him rebuild his life and career around something new.  For people like Howard, that’s often a scary proposition. “They have to see me as someone they can count on,” Matt explains.

Even the briefest conversation with Matt tells you he loves his job. Even though he talks about an average day with a big smile on his face and a contagious enthusiasm that’s inspiring, he’ll discuss both the successes and heartaches that come with trying to reach people in need.  He’ll tell an uplifting story like Robert’s… a man who spent 12 years in prison for armed robbery, which in truth was really a failed attempt at ‘suicide by cop.’  In jail, Robert had a religious conversion experience.  After his release and much time being homeless, he met Matt.  Matt helped him find first the 100 Nights Shelter, then an affordable apartment.  Now Robert volunteers there and is trying to give back to the community that, through Matt, gave so much to him.

He’ll tell you a sad story like Charlotte’s… a young woman whose personality problems and drug addiction made her unable to stay in an apartment for very long and proved to be an obstacle to using all of the homeless shelters in the area.  Matt and others tried heroically to get her to a healthier place, even driving hours to her former home in Connecticut to recover her possessions. “We tried everything we could think of to give her some help,” he admitted, “ but then she just left town. We don’t know where she is now.”

Still, Matt is a realist.  He’ll tirelessly work to find and reach out to homeless people in the Monadnock Region to help get them to a better place in their life.  He does this for approximately 130 people each year and the majority of residents in Cheshire County don’t even know about it.