HARTFORD, Vt. — Merry Christmas.
It’s what Ben Harper and Michelle Hayward said to each other, shortly after they awoke on the air mattress in the tiny ramshackle cabin in the woods.
But, Harper said a few hours later, the holiday greeting was the extent of his Christmas celebration.
“It’s another day to me,” said Harper, a scrappy and assertive 33. When he woke up, his first cigarette was only minutes away; his first meal — Christmas dinner at the Upper Valley Haven homeless shelter in White River Junction — would take many long hours.
There was no food in the snow-covered cabin, built by a friend in the woods about a mile from the Sykes Mountain Avenue neighborhood of White River Junction. There weren’t any Christmas decorations either, and the only Christmas trees Harper and Hayward saw were when they stepped outside and trudged through the firs and pines of the forest. They broke ground in the foot-deep snow as they headed for a parking lot beyond Graystone Village, an apartment complex.
Harper is a fast walker.
“He walks to and from work,” Hayward said, proudly, after they had arrived at a borrowed car sitting in the parking lot. “Did you tell him that?”
“Yeah,” Harper said. The distance between the parking lot and his job — at Price Chopper on the Miracle Mile in Lebanon — is nearly 4 miles.
“He can walk it in 21 minutes,” said Hayward, a former licensed nursing assistant. She’s worked at Wheelock Terrace in Hanover, Valley Terrace in White River Junction, and Genesis Healthcare in Lebanon. Now, she said, she struggles to get a job at a fast-food restaurant — she’s been told by hiring managers that her resume is a mismatch.
“My problem is, I’m overeducated,” she said.
Harper’s problem was not overeducation. It was heroin. Many of his current problems can be directly traced back to 2010, when, at 25, he became one of nearly two dozen people arrested during “Operation Connecticut Valley,” a sweeping law enforcement action by the Vermont Drug Task Force of the Vermont State Police.
Harper said he was sent to prison. “Seven bags of heroin,” he said. “Seven years.”
Harper, who said he’s been sober for five years now, said that, while he was in prison, he forfeited on his taxes and lost his house. Now that he’s out of prison, he’s tried to find housing and work, but his past has dogged him.
“With a criminal record, they don’t like to rent to me,” he said.
He acknowledged that his current hardships are the result of his own actions, but his bad decisions seem distant and foggy, while his hardships are fresh and raw.
He started working 36 hours a week at the Price Chopper bakery three months ago — he puts in orders, labels things, packages bakery products and puts them on the shelves. The paycheck is slim — he said he clears less than $300 a week, much of which now goes to buy propane to heat the cabin — but, he said, being employed is important to him, and he’s worked his way up to a position of authority and respect.
“The best part of the job is that I’m actually working,” he said.
Many of those who are living in homeless encampments scattered about Hartford are employed, according to Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten. Kasten said some people with limited financial resources have their lifestyles upended by an unexpected financial burden, like a car breaking down.
“We recently assisted the Haven with a lady that was just underemployed and just couldn’t afford to pay for some automobile repairs,” Kasten said. “Through the grace of the Haven and the staff, they were able to make arrangements to help her get underway.”
A little while after emerging from the woods, Harper and Hayward stood in the parking lot with a few friends who were living at the Haven.
They stood around a borrowed car talking while Harper finished another hand-rolled cigarette.
One friend, a 29-year-old man who identified himself only as Dan, was planning to spend the day with his sister in Hanover where, he said, he hoped to get drunk and eat a lot of food.
For many people, the idea of a home is paired with a sense of stability. But for Dan and other residents of the Haven who lack reliable housing, sometimes a relative’s house can, for at least one day, feel like home.
“Any day of the year that’s an opportunity to be with family or friends is a good Christmas,” he said.
Dan stood near a quiet young woman, who said she was homeless because she had come to the area from California three months ago with a boyfriend who had proven to be physically abusive. She asked not to be named.
“I’m not trying to die,” she said.
Kasten said the problems facing the Upper Valley’s homeless are vast and varied — “mental illness, addiction and generational poverty tend to play a role in the homeless population, but not always.”
He urged those who were interested in addressing the needs of the homeless to make donations, or get involved, at groups like the Haven or the Listen Center.
“It’s not as simple as necessarily giving a person cash,” he said. “Sometimes it’s connecting them with mental health services. It might be a need of transportation, or identification, or building a residency history and those kinds of things. They may need legal aid.”
Social service organizations, he said, “have case managers and staff that help peel back the layers on that onion to give folks a hand up, and make sure that they move forward.”
Hayward left the parking lot to walk off into the woods, toward a hidden grouping of tents that she knew of. She reappeared a short time later.
“I went looking for a few other people to bring to the Haven,” she said. Hayward spends a lot of her time volunteering for the Haven, trying to help. “I went and looked for that other person, and their camp looks like it fell in,” she said.
“It probably did,” said Harper.
Hayward and Harper and Dan and the quiet young woman and another young man with straight black hair who called himself Ghost, drove out of the parking lot, headed to the Haven so Dan could meet his sister.
There are many homeless people to check in on in Hartford. Kasten said he knew of several encampments of tents, some of which are active and some of which are dormant.
About a mile and a half from the parking lot, the overpass created where Route 5 crosses the White River deflected most of the recent snowfall so that, by late morning, only an inch or two coated a collection of tents framed by graffiti that was colorful, both visually and linguistically. The tents stood in a rough semicircle around a common space with a makeshift cooking fire, battered pieces of furniture and the occasional bicycle or shopping cart.
Tracks showed that the squirrels had been active in checking out the tents, but there were no human footprints.
Outside one tent, a pair of workman’s shoes sat on the ground, covered with a light dusting of snow.
The tent was zippered closed, so it was impossible to see inside. Greetings called into the icy air were not returned. Questions went unanswered.
Perhaps, on Christmas morning, someone was inside the tent, breathing quietly so as to evade detection.
Or perhaps, for Christmas Day at least, they were home.
Information from: Lebanon Valley News, http://www.vnews.com