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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Homeless Like Me (Episode 5)

Lost Stars of Harrington Hall
Harrington Hall at 3am Saturday morning
By Bob Plain on November 22, 2012
Episode 1; episode 2; episode 3; episode 4

Sleeping at Harrington Hall, the overnight shelter in Cranston, is something of a mix between being in prison and being at a frat house for old men.
The very spacious, former gymnasium/auditorium at the Pastore Center state services campus, was even once a part of the prison system. The building somehow related to the psych ward, I was told, or the “old insane asylum,” as one homeless man called it. He was happy to talk history, but not to give his name.

(I live-tweeted 48 hours of living on the streets of Providence.Click here to see them. Or here for #HomelessLikeMe project.)

It has super high ceilings and giant windows on two sides; the front door is on a third side and a stage on the other. There’s a bathroom in front and a shower room off of the stage. The showers are a source of much  consternation among the residents. They are filthy, and not handicap accessible, and two Harrington Hall regulars are confined to wheelchairs and unable to bath there as a result.
The shower at Harrington Hall.
An old wooden floor takes up the rest of the real estate and is literally lined with beds. Very uncomfortable-looking beds; like something out of WWII-era hospital. 88 of them in all, each a few feet apart from one another.
Last night, Harrington Hall had fewer guests than that, meaning I got to sleep in one of them. Most nights there are about 10 people who aren’t so lucky; they’ve been averaging 97 per evening. Late comers sleep on the stage, where the light stays on all night.
The beds are somewhat first-come-first serve, though many of the long-timers have staked claims. One man who has been here more than 5 years said he takes the bed closest to the bathroom even though it’s a high traffic area at night for its proximity to the facilities. He’s in his 70′s, in a wheelchair and – like many people who take advantage of Harrington Hall, though by no means all of them – he’s a heavy drinker.
Roughly the same view of Harrington Hall at 7am Saturday morning.
I slept in bed C3. I waited until about 10:30 to take the spot, just in case the shelter was full that evening. Which it often isn’t around holidays. The homeless, much like the rest of us, reconvene with family over the Thanksgiving weekend, I was told by some of those who weren’t so lucky.
A staffer gave me a clean sheet, there was a cover-less pillow and scratchy wool blanket waiting for me on a bumpy old mattress than had long ago lost all of its firmness. A heavy-set, shirtless guy in his fifities sleeping over in C2 snored as loud as anyone I have ever heard. The chorus of snoring throughout Harrington Hall was cartoonishly loud and melodic.
After check in opens at 4pm, a process that asks for a social security number, as well as criminal, marital, mental and employment information, we were only allowed back outside for designated smoke breaks. The staff, situated behind a table on the stage, would often bark out directives, such as “Lights out!” and “30 seconds left in the smoke break.”
Tensions sometimes ran high among the residents. There was a discrepancy about who lay proper claim to a bed, I saw a guy take considerable umbrage when another guy allegedly got too close to his belongings. Oftentimes, people would cause a commotion be simply arriving intoxicated.
Joe Borassi reads by the light of a soda machine after lights out.
For me, a first-timer, I felt like I best keep my wits about me for the duration of my stay. Staff concurred, in fact cautioned me to do so. Theft is common, they said. Only once did I let my 30-pound pack – stuffed with some emergency layers of clothes, a computer and my sleeping bag – escape my sight. I rudely jumped out of a conversation and rushed around a corner to retrieve it when I realized what I had done.
The tensest situation occurred when I approached one guy about an interview. He was in his mid-forties, and had a prosthetic leg. He stormed off – on his prosthetic leg, mind you – and offered what sounded like very unfriendly advice in Spanish as he walked away. For a good while afterwards, I could feel him staring at me from across the room. He didn’t blink when I caught him doing so. I made a very conscious decision to not meet his glare again. I made sure to talk to someone else, to send the message that I had friends.
Harrington Hall
I often overreacted after that. When I reached for my shoes at the side of the bed in the morning, I spent a good three seconds thinking that I was going to have to walk outside and get on a bus to Providence in my stocking feet because I didn’t instantly put my hand on them. It was telling how quickly I assumed the worst.
Maybe I overreacted about the guy with the prosthetic leg, too, I wondered?
The community at Harrington Hall
For all its institutional problems and shortcomings, the sense of camaraderie and community at Harrington Hall is, in a way, even more noteworthy.
Much more than they disagreed, the guys got along with one another. Some joked around, others played cards. There were dozens of micro-conversations occurring at any given minute all across Harrington Hall. Homeless people pretty much talk about the same stuff those of us with homes do when we get together: the good old days, current events, plans for the future, the weather. A group watched “Fantastic Four” on the TV beside the stage. A lot of people read books.
Word got out that I was a reporter – maybe it was the live-tweeting, or maybe it was the video interviews? – and I quickly became a curiosity. Many were eager to tell their stories, even more just wanted to talk. I represented a sort of liaison to the more-established sector of society that they are pretty much otherwise alienated from in so many tangible and intangible ways.
I’d say most people I spoke with were either clean and sober or on the road to becoming so. Some, though, were flagrantly not on that road. Many were employed, to some degree or another, some full time. A bunch of people wanted to ask about the internet, Facebook or their smart phones.
I reunited with the first friend I made in my 48 hours on the streets, Billy Cormier. It was like seeing an old friend as I felt like I had lived a lifetime since we went to Thanksgiving dinner together at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He asked how my project was going and I tried to show him the video I put together with him. A bunch of guys huddled around my computer but my internet connection wasn’t working.
John Renaud
We all ate together, very informally, at several long tables just below the stage. Pasta with red sauce and dinner rolls; there was a second course of ham and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. To the best of my knowledge, there was no dessert.
I sat with Paul Pisano and John Renauld. They both drink, but John much harder. As evidenced by the bandage on across his face. He struggles with booze, prescription painkillers and crack. He said he stays at the shelter, instead of outside, because it costs too much to get sufficiently high enough to be able to brave the cold winter nights. He told me he’d have the shakes in the morning, and true to his word he was in rough shape when I said good morning to him the next day.
Paul said he only drinks a little Sambuca with his morning coffee. He’s been living at Harrington for three weeks and four days, he told me, since being evicted from his apartment. He said he has pretty good luck turning odd jobs like yard work into more long-range employment. He seemed like the kind of guy you’d want to give some work to; earnest, honest and caring. He was fun to talk with and instantly struck me as a fellow seeker. He spoke of Florida like Dustin Hoffman did in Midnight Cowboy.
Paul Pisano
He talked about the community he has at Harrington Hall, and how the people and the place are helping him get through a hard patch. He doesn’t want to live there forever – no one does, I don’t think- but he recently lost both his girlfriend and his apartment and admits to being a little lost in life right now.
“Everybody calls it being homeless but I call it the lost star state,” he said to me. “Everybody has a calling, and for some people this is it.”

Bob Plain is the editor/publisher of Rhode Island's Future. Previously, he's worked as a reporter for several different news organizations both in Rhode Island and across the country.