A Variety of Ways to Help the Homeless, and to End Homelessness

If you or anyone you know is homeless or hungry, call Bennie Johnson. He will house, clothe and feed anyone who shows up at his modest apartment. “Thirty Gatehouse Road, Apartment 308, Amherst, Massachusetts. Come by anytime,” he told me during our first encounter.

Many nights, one or two people stay with him, other times more.

“I’ve had this place full,” he said.

Bennie also cooks huge dinners on a regular basis. On a recent Wednesday, he prepared Southern fried chicken, fish, omelets, and finger foods for about 30 people.

“I put the word out. I want people to come to me,” he said. “What do I get out of it? I feel good that I know that I’m helping people. I know that Larry [a mentally handicapped man who lives in Benny’s building] ain’t hungry.”

Bennie, 62, has been working for others most of his life. Upon moving to Northampton in 1982, he organized a tenants’ association for residents of the Florence Heights housing project. The group pressed the city’s housing authority to fix leaky roofs and broken pipes, and to deal with cockroaches and other unsanitary living conditions.

When the complaints were ignored, Bennie appealed to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which successfully sued the Northampton Housing Authority for $100,000 in damages. Each family received $2,000, along with the maintenance they were entitled to.

Bennie hasn’t slowed down since. Many nights he can be seen on the streets of Amherst and Northampton, wearing a number of colorful capes and singing some of the 200 songs he has memorized, accompanied by a bucket he found in the trash several years ago and a kazoo that hangs around his neck.

This has earned him the alias “Motown Man” “because I play Motown music,” he said. He grew up in New Orleans and began playing music as early as he can remember, eventually traveling the world as a vocalist and drummer in a band with his five brothers.

“Music is my high,” he said.
Many think he is homeless when they see him playing on the street, a reaction Bennie said he hopes to provoke. “I get a chance to change people’s mind about judging people… they tell me, ‘You changed my way of thinking.’”

Benny hopes to persuade people to aid Amherst’s homeless population. In 2007, more than 5,000 people in the Pioneer Valley experienced some period of homelessness. Almost half of them were families with children, according to a report commissioned by the mayors of Holyoke, Springfield and Northampton.

“It [homelessness] is a crisis, an unseen crisis, but a crisis,” Bennie said.

For those who cannot afford to aid the homeless financially, Benny said there are other ways to help. Instead of ignoring a homeless person on the street one could point out places they can find help, as many are not aware of all the resources available to them, or simply make small talk.

“At least then they would feel like a human being,” Benny said.


Editor’s note:

There are a variety of ways to help prevent people from becoming homeless, and to help homeless people. One is to reduce unemployment. This can be done by supporting the Apollo Alliance’s efforts to reduce our use of oil, coal, and nuclear energy, and replace them with job-creating programs like insulating and weathering homes, and improving the nation’s train system for moving people and freight. Details are at www.ApolloAlliance.org

Another way to reduce unemployment is to require employers to pay overtime after 32 hours, instead of 40 hours a week. One group working toward this goal is the Labor Education and Research Project www.LaborNotes.org publisher of the book “Time Out: The Case for a Shorter Work Week.”

Some people who work full-time don’t earn enough to buy a home, or even rent an apartment. Unions raise their members’ wages, and lobby to raise the minimum wage to help all workers. Information on how to form a union and support unions is at www.jwj.org

Some homeless people are unable to work because of mental illness or addictions. People can call their members of Congress and ask them to increase funding for mental health and addiction treatment programs. Details are available from the National Alliance on Mental Illness www.nami.org

Finally, people can donate to, and/or volunteer at their local homeless shelter, like Morningside Shelter in Brattleboro www.MorningsideShelter.org To locate other shelters in our area contact your local public library’s reference librarian.


Bennie Johnson & homeless folks

I didn't know this about Bennie; I'll have to throw him some $$ the next time I see him playing in Noho, Hadley, or Amherst. Thanks for the report!

Michele, Noho

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