ST. ALBANS — “Thomas” lives outside. He doesn’t have a house, but according to him, he’s not homeless: he’s houseless.
Thomas, who has requested anonymity in fear of losing his living space, is in his mid-50s, and is staying in St. Albans. He’s been outdoors for the past three years, he said, due to losing his job after switching to an employer who quickly shut down its business.
“All my life I lived indoors and had jobs and paid rent,” Thomas said in a recent interview. “I became not [able] to pay for the apartment. I’m outdoors because of economic reasons.”
Thomas is among the 1,500 or so Vermonters without permanent shelter. According to the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness’ annual Point-In-Time (PIT) count conducted in January, 1,556 people in Vermont were experiencing homelessness at that time, a 9.27 percent increased over the 2013 PIT count.
In 2014, 72 of those people were in Franklin County. While there are options for transitional shelter and food pantries in St. Albans (see box), Thomas said he and some others don’t feel those resources are appropriate for them. He said he couldn’t digest the idea of giving up some of his personal belongings or independence to stay in a shelter or receive state welfare benefits.
“I’ll sleep on the ground first,” he said.
So Thomas lives outside. Tan, muscular and weathered, Thomas keeps his personal items in a safe place and stays busy finding food, water, helping others who are living outside, protecting his area, taking care of the stray cat he found, and trying to find another job.
“I’ve always supported myself.” Thomas said. “I’m the busiest person on earth.”
In talking about surviving through the seasons and finding comfort out-of-doors, Thomas said it isn’t all that bad. “I’m really comfortable out here,” he said. “Being outdoors is almost the same as being in.” He mentioned that he has even made igloos in which to stay.
Thomas collects food where he can, often wasted food out of the garbage. For instance, during his interview he took out a garbage bag full of bread loaves thrown away by a local restaurant, waste that he said could go to good use. Speaking of a local fast food restaurant, he said, “They throw out so much food. They could feed 10 guys every night.”
Thomas also picks fiddleheads, although he was quick to point out he was not a forager or hunter. “I’m more of a machine person,” he said.
Thomas said doing laundry is vital to living outdoors.
“Clothing is really important, especially in this climate,” he said. “Dirty clothes are cold.” He added that it’s a little difficult sometimes with only one Laundromat in St. Albans.
While there are a number of other items that Thomas said make his outdoor living comfortable, one exceeds all. “Toilet paper,” said Thomas. “Always the most important.”
Thomas also keeps himself safe by carrying firearms and reporting to police any crime he witnesses near his living space.
In addition to taking care of himself and his cat, Thomas helps others living outside or experiencing homelessness. “These are my people and I do everything I can to help them,” he said. Thomas brings food, water, furniture and anything to others he finds are in need, though he said a number of the homeless men he helped have died in the past few years.
One of them was Fred Bemis, a 59-year-old whose body police found in a wooded area west of Price Chopper in 2012 and who was determined to have died from natural causes.
“There’s only three of them left,” Thomas said. He added that helping out the homeless is as rewarding as it is challenging. “I’ve been able to make an improvement in their lives,” he said, “[but] you can’t do everything for them.”
Thomas said that when someone doesn’t want to help him or herself, he can’t do much for that person. “I don’t like doing it but you have to learn to give up on people,” he said. “You’re wasting your time when someone else could use the help.”
Thomas said that he understood why homeless or houseless people didn’t always want to be helped – it’s the same reason he doesn’t like to accept state or local aid. “For the most part, most people don’t want you helping them,” he said. “They don’t want to feel powerless, they don’t want to feel destitute.”
The solution, said Thomas, is to give something for those experiencing homelessness to do, tasks like picking up garbage, painting, helping elderly residents and others, so they can help themselves.
“A person without purpose is a puppet,” Thomas said. “If you’re not achieving a goal then you have no purpose in life. One of the things that homeless people really need is a function in life, to contribute.”
He added, “It’s conducive to a person’s natural desire to be useful and not a burden. There’s so much in our community that needs to be done.”
Thomas said that he’d like to see a more done for youth in St. Albans as well – something to give children and teenagers positive resources so they can be successful as they grow into adults.
“St. Albans doesn’t even have a youth center,” said Thomas. “Hard’ack is wonderful but I don’t see [anything] organized.”
Thomas added that he felt the biggest barrier for houseless and homeless people is society’s perception. “Homeless people basically get treated like criminals,” he said. Thomas pointed out, “I’m a human being. I have aspirations.”
He said, “Houseless people are part of the society and people should be aware.”
Thomas is continuing to look for a job – something he said is difficult due to the technology applications usually required – and trying to secure his future. Eventually he would like to return to a living situation he previously had for 12 years – living in a renovated, insulated and heated bus. Costing $400 a year and just $800 to buy and fix the vehicle, Thomas said it was a no-brainer for him.
“I would rather live in a bus than anything,” he said. Thomas added that though it wouldn’t be a typical house with four walls, a floor and a roof, a bus would be a comfortable home for him, and it could be a potential home for others currently without one.
And having a home, as opposed to a house, is what Thomas said is ultimately important for people to be successful and productive in the world.
“Home is where your heart is, and when you’re homeless, you’re lost,” said Thomas. “Homeless is a connotation. Houseless is, well, – I don’t have a house.”