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Jim Kenyon: The Upper Valley’s homeless could use a fairy tale

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/11/2020 9:32:45 PM
Modified: 4/11/2020 9:32:43 PM

By their very name, stay-at-home orders presume too much. Lest we forget, as we fret about shortages of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, not everyone has a home to stay at.

For six months, Shane Colford’s home was a tent in the woods off the Mascoma River Greenway, the paved pedestrian and bicycle path along the abandoned railway line between Lebanon and West Lebanon.

Timken Aerospace, which has its manufacturing plant on nearby Miracle Mile, owns the 40-acre wooded parcel where Colford set up camp in October without permission.

I guess that made the 45-year-old Colford a squatter, but he didn’t look at it that way.

“I’m just trying to survive,” he told me.

Two months after Colford put down roots, Travis Bailey, a friend who was also homeless, joined him. They used two small fire pits dug into the ground for cooking and to burn trash. They kept warm — or at least tried to — on winter nights in mummy sleeping bags.

On March 24, Lebanon police received a call about people camping out in the patch of woods between the greenway and the river owned by Timken.

Colford told me the call stemmed from a young guy who sometimes visited the campsite using an outdoor power outlet near Timken’s manufacturing plant. Before then, “nobody messed with us,” Colford said.

I’m not sure why Timken couldn’t have looked the other way for a while. In the throes of a pandemic, people without much money don’t need the added stress of having to find new living arrangements.

Last week, I called Aaron Mills, Timken’s area manager, who had met with police, to ask what was the rush. I didn’t hear back.

To his credit, however, Mills told police that Timken didn’t want the men to face criminal charges for trespassing, according to an officer’s report.

Under the circumstances, Lebanon cops handled the difficult situation about as well as could be expected. They gave Colford and Bailey a few days to collect their belongings and clean up the site.

On March 27 — the day Gov. Chris Sununu’s stay-at-home order for New Hampshire residents went into effect— Colford and Bailey shuttled their belongings out of the woods.

When cops checked at 4 p.m. — the deadline that had been set — the men were gone and the “trash was cleaned up,” stated an officer’s report.

The next day, Colford emailed the Valley News to say he had a story that might be of interest. I called the cellphone number that he’d left.

Until the coronavirus shutdown, Colford said, he installed insulation for an Upper Valley construction company. He relied on Advance Transit’s free bus service to get back and forth to work. During winter months, “I left in the dark and came home in the dark,” he said.

He’s been homeless since a relationship with his son’s mother came to an end, he said. “I left with a backpack,” he said. Unable to afford an apartment, he bounced around until finding a “safe place” to camp.

The spot between the greenway and river that Colford settled on is well-hidden. The topography shields the campsite (Colford suspects he wasn’t the first to use it) from the greenway’s walkers, runners and bicyclists. Still, it’s a short walk to Miracle Mile’s food stores and a bus stop.

Last week, I followed a path off the greenway that zigzagged down a hill and into a pine forest. A hundred yards from the campsite, a neatly written note, wrapped in plastic to protect it from rain, was attached to a stick.

The note said that Colford and Bailey had recently been “evicted” from their campsite. It was addressed to the “Food Fairy.”

Who’s that?

Every so often, Colford and Bailey would find a bag of food hanging from a wild apple tree, where Colford left the note. The stranger — Colford and Bailey never saw the person — left cans of Progresso chicken soup, boxes of cereal, trail mix and homemade cookies.

“I’d love to find out who it was,” Colford said. “Just to thank them.”

Early on, the Food Fairy, as Colford named the person, left their own note, “Here’s some food. If you get cold, take the bus to the (Upper Valley) Haven.”

But a homeless shelter wasn’t for Colford, who wrestles with bouts of social anxiety. “I can’t be around a lot of people,” he said. “I’d just rather be in the woods.”

In the last week or so, I’ve talked with Colford on the phone a few times and exchanged text messages. He hoped that his story could help “break the stigma of the homeless man.”

Said Colford, “Yeah, we live outdoors, but we’re hardworking taxpayers, just like you and your neighbors. We’re just down on our luck and can’t get housing, so we make the best of what we have.”

The “unsheltered” homeless — people who live outside in tents and cars or find refuge in abandoned buildings — are a “very vulnerable population,” said Cathy Kuhn, director of the nonprofit New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness in Manchester. “Oftentimes, they have significant health challenges. Living outdoors can be hard on the body.”

The coronarvirus has created more hardships, Kuhn added. Many of New Hampshire’s soup kitchens and other places that unsheltered homeless people go for meals are closed or have reduced their hours.

“The last thing we want now is for people to be living outdoors and not connected to resources,” Kuhn said.

On Friday, I checked in with Colford. He and Bailey have moved their campsite to state land in Grafton County. (He was reluctant to give a more precise location. I don’t blame him.)

Without a job, living outdoors during these extraordinary times is “harder to do,” Colford said, “but it’s OK.”

Now more than ever, he could use a Food Fairy.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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