Under the Church Roof: Snapshots of Homelessness

Don Marks is the first one to speak.

“Yeah,” he says, when I ask him to tell me a little about himself. “Yeah, sure.”

His breath smells like cigarettes, and he clutches a battered cardboard sign whose two words carry more weight than the dried ink first implies: “Homeless Vet.”

As Marks launches into his story, others around him listen in, bunching themselves like accordions over tables sheeted in plastic meant to look like wood grain. With the exception of some volunteers from neighbouring churches, everyone in the basement room of the Church of the Nazarene in Wareham, Massachusetts, is homeless. Barring occasional stays on relatives’ or better-off friends’ couches, most of them live in the woods behind Target, just off Cranberry Highway. Sometimes, they can afford to stay in motels in town, but, unlike the technically homeless who live full-time in motels like the Starlight Motel or Atlantic Motel, their incomes aren’t steady enough to afford such luxuries.

Understanding their plight, the Wareham Clergy Association hosts what are known as Nights of Hospitality. During the Nights, two churches in town, the Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene, and St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, open their doors at night so that homeless individuals may have a hot dinner, sleep in a warm bed, and wake to a hot breakfast. Restaurants around town donate the food, and volunteers donate their time, sleeping overnight with homeless individuals in the churches. The Nights last from late December through mid-March, to coincide with the Cape’s worst weather months. It’s the only option most homeless individuals have. The closest shelters are significantly further down the Cape, in places like Hyannis, which is about 45 minutes driving away from Wareham, with no easily-accessed back roads to safely walk.

Marks doesn’t have any family in the area, he says, but he’s waiting for his veterans housing to come through for him.

“They told me I would just have to wait two more months. I just have to hold out for two more months,” he says. “I’m hoping to get a one-bedroom.”

But it’s more than hope that drives him: it’s January 2016, and despite sunny days, the weather is already becoming chillier. Like others around him, Marks wears almost everything he owns at all times. Underneath the layers he wears, Marks is almost skeletal, as evidenced by a flash of vein-corded wrist, and delicate, birdlike neck revealed as the church’s heating system coaxes him to unwind the scarf from his throat.

Marks served in the Korean War, but ensuing years of alcohol abuse led him further and further away from the life he had envisioned for himself. He has lived in Wareham for years, and spends his days petitioning for money near the intersection of Route 28 and Route 6, just before the two merge to become Cranberry Highway. When he gets cold, he trundles over to the Stop & Shop nearby, to sit in the grocery store’s warm cafeteria area, use the bathroom, and catch up with friends in similar situations to his.

Brian Haskell is one of those friends. He’s skinny and tall, with a long, pock-marked face that doesn’t betray much emotion. He occasionally does odd jobs for Patrick Tropeano, a town official, but, other than that, he’s just trying to get his life back on track, he says. It’s hard for him to get past the recent death of his friend, Mary Kristmas. She supported him through his addiction to opiates and other drugs, he says, and was always there, when he needed her. Now, he feels he has no one.

“I’ve been clean for a few weeks, but I keep going back to it,” Haskell says of his addiction. “I just get so depressed. I need something to make me feel better.”

He isn’t drunk that January evening, but, a few nights later, he is. Walking into the church’s nave, he bursts into tears, as he approaches the altar, crosses and stained glass glinting softly around him. He feels isolated and guilty, he says, because he’s been accused of letting a friend freeze to death.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen. I didn’t mean for it to happen,” he keeps repeating. “I had to leave. I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

It’s hard to get a clear picture of what happened, but from what Rising Dawn Loud says, Haskell left a drunk friend in the middle of the night in an unused, uninsulated shack, and never returned. Loud is a relative newcomer to town, but she has been through Wareham before. She’s a freckled, burly woman with a husky voice and an easy laugh. But she believes first and foremost in camaraderie, and finds it hard to forgive Haskell.

Loud is in her 40s, and part First Nations, but that is all she will say of herself and her past. Unlike most of the other homeless individuals in Wareham, she is trying to become more involved with the church, whenever she has the time. She and her boyfriend, Cam, go everywhere together, and their travels have taken them from Hyannis to Wareham.

“I love him, my little Cammy,” Loud says, and laughs, as Cam grimaces, his face a mixture of happiness and chagrin at the nickname. “We’re here, for now, and want to be baptized here in a few months.”

The pair recently got jobs at a car wash, which excites them, because they can, for a week or two, at least, afford a motel room. But experience tells them both not to count on it lasting, because of discrimination they have faced, due to the fact they are both homeless. Still, Loud tries to stay optimistic, because she feels she has to.

“He has a heart condition, and his dad won’t help him,” Loud says, nodding at Cam.

“I’m living on borrowed time. Doctor says I probably won’t live into my 30s,” Cam says. “But whatever time I have, I want to spend with her. She takes care of me.”

Loud smiles again, and kisses him.

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