Talking With Local Homeless People

I met Steve Cuoco last May as he sat on the sidewalk outside Thorne’s Marketplace, eating out of a Chef Boyardee can. His sign that read “homeless vet” leaned against a coffee cup full of coins, imploring people to part with any spare change floating around their pockets. He suspected many ignore him because “they think I’m just a derelict trying to get crack money.”

He had been homeless in Northampton for about two years, the whole time coping with degenerative arthritis in his back. A weathered cane helped with walking, but his slow, stooped gait made it clear every step was an excruciating ordeal. He said alcohol is the only available remedy to dull the almost constant pain.

A doctor said a fall down a flight of stairs in 1981 is responsible for his current medical condition. The fall happened when he was an active duty Air Force member, for which Cuoco received a medical discharge under honorable conditions. He receives $960 a month from the military for mental disabilities caused by the fall, but does not receive disability payments for his back condition. After doctors said his fall caused the degenerative arthritis Cuoco filed a disability claim, but the military claimed they couldn't find his medical records, and denied the claim.

“The military gives me shit, they give me nothing,” he said. “They just kicked me to the curb.”

Cuoco said he would receive another $1,800 a month if the military also recognized his back disability, allowing him to get an apartment. Right now he can only afford three weeks a month in a motel, as rent is $325 a week. After that he is on the streets until the next check comes.

Cuoco said he felt like a “crumbum” begging on the street, but that is the only way he can survive. Although Northampton provides some free meals, Cuoco said it isn’t nearly enough. “I gotta beg like a scumbag to keep from going hungry” he said. “This is the only meal I get. Chef Boyardee.”

Steve is homeless though no fault of his own, a situation also faced by Chris Barnard, an Amherst native I met at the Amherst Survival Center www.AmherstSurvival.org last March. At the time he lived out of his car, which had been his home for the previous 10 months, the result of a working class life that quickly unraveled.

Barnard said he was laid off from his post office job, lost his modest house, and went through a divorce during which his ex wife took the last $2,000 from his bank account to pay her lawyer. Completely broke, Barnard didn’t know where to turn before he discovered the Amherst Survival Center, which provided him with a hot meal most days.

“Before this place I starved for four days,” he said. “I didn’t have anyplace to go.”

At night Barnard had to return to his car, an unsuitable dwelling for the frigid Amherst winter.

“About 15 different police officers came up to the door and rapped on the window. That’s a horrible sound after a while, that stern rapping,” he said. “Sometimes it got so cold out they would force me to go to the hospital to get warm.”

I met him again in May on the bus, and he said things were finally improving. His ex wife finally repaid him, and he was looking for a permanent residence and a new job.

Unfortunately Cuoco and Barnard are just two of the many people who have experienced homelessness in the area. In 2007, over 5,000 people in the Pioneer Valley experienced some period of homelessness, and almost half of these were families with children, according to a report commissioned by the mayors of Holyoke, Springfield and Northampton.

Although some are responsible for their current situation, many are on the streets because life threw them a curveball they could do nothing about. The Valley’s many shelters and food banks provide essential aid to these unlucky souls, people like Barnard and Cuoco who saw fate steal their metaphorical bootstraps. It’s impossible to lift one’s self out of homelessness by pulling at air.

Basically a lot of people need a lot of help. Donations to shelters and food banks are always helpful, but one should not understate the significance of giving five dollars to someone on the street asking for help. For that person, five dollars means a warm drink and some food to quiet a stomach likely raging with hunger. It may seem like a small gesture as five dollars means little to most people. Yet for someone who has nothing, five dollars is everything- it allows them to survive the day somewhat comfortably. This may be a small victory, as there is another battle waiting the next day, but it’s still better than going hungry.

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