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Friday, November 23, 2012

Homeless Like Me (Episode 2)

Thanksgiving, Billy Cormier, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church
Billy Cormier, who lives in a local shelter, 
looks out across Burnside Park. (Photo by Bob Plain)

By Bob Plain on November 22, 2012
Continuing from Homeless Like Me.

Billy Cormier became the first fellow I connected with as I began my 48 hours of living on the streets of Providence when, by way of introducing myself, I walked up to the park bench he was sitting on in Burnside Park and asked him where the free meal was.

I had talked to a couple of people before him – one man about my age, shivering cold with open sores on his face had asked me for spare change but didn’t want to converse after I told him no; and another guy politely told me to take the 31 bus to the meal but made it pretty clear he didn’t want to join me.

Billy was going too, and was more than happy to let me tag along. We took the bus together.

On the way, he told me a bit of his story. He stays in Harrington Hall and collects a disability payment from the government because he has bipolar disorder. He hasn’t worked since 2006.

He grew up in the Pawtuxet Village area of Cranston and was living in Florida with his wife of 26 years when she died of a heart attack and a stroke in July. I asked, and he said they weren’t doing drugs. But he was with her when it happened, and he took her to the emergency room here she passed away a few days later.

Whatever happened, he intimated that her family held him responsible. So he came back to Rhode Island and ended up in our system.

You can hear him tell his own story here:

Billy and I ate Thanksgiving dinner together at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was a traditional affair with all the fixings – turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes (or yams, I have no idea how to tell the difference and didn’t ask!), even pecan pie. The bird was sufficiently moist and the stuffing sufficiently filling. But, no, it wasn’t like you get at home. There wasn’t even seconds.

The real treat was the service before hand. We listened to a minister preach the gospel for about 15 minutes then sang for another 15 minutes. Both were powerful and uplifting. They wouldn’t let me take any pictures inside – because unlike Billy, a lot of people on streets don’t want their stories publicized – but I did record a little bit of both the sermon and the signing.

(Listen to the sermon in the original story here.)

After dinner, Billy took the bus and I walked from Cranston Street down to India Point Park. It’s a long walk but so far acting homeless has been an exercise in killing time. My pack, which holds my sleeping bag, some long johns and extra wool socks (which were no fun to wear today), weighs about 30 pounds, and that gets kinda heavy after lugging it on your back from one end of the city to the other.

Along the way, I tried to make eye contact with as many people as I could as a sort of unscientific social experiment. I dressed to fit the part, in my normal weekend attire: tattered old Carharts and a tattered old LL Bean button up with my tattered old winter coat on over it. Add my tattered old baseball cap and a week without shaving, and yeah I think it’s fair to say I look a little bit homeless.

What surprised me most was not how many seemingly middle class people didn’t want to make eye contact with me as I can understand why people would want to pretend like homelessness isn’t the social ill that it is – even though there are some 5,000 people living on the streets in Rhode Island every day. What really caught me off guard was that the homeless folks didn’t want to make eye contact with me either.

Maybe they aren’t used to people looking at them, or maybe they don’t trust the new guy? Either way, it was easy to feel how alienating being a street person can be. In just a few short hours I had become invisible. People didn’t want to know I existed.

On my way, I came upon a camp on the banks of the Providence River: