Saturday, December 21, was the winter solstice, also known as the shortest day of the year. As a result, that night was the longest night of the year. It was a clear, cold December night. The stars shone brightly except when obscured by the transient misty clouds of human breath. For those celebrating the season by enjoying the lights on the Village Green or warm fires, friends and food, these days can be some of the most memorable of the year.
However, for too many of our Falmouth brethren with no place to sleep, no place to call home, cold nights mean potential peril. For Falmouth’s homeless, the loss of a home can mean the loss of a life. A local nonprofit aimed at reducing and eliminating that potential peril joined many others across the nation in also recognizing December 21 as National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day and raising both funds and awareness to provide a local solution.
The day’s events for that amazing organization, Belonging To Each Other (BTEO), began with an interfaith candlelight service at the First Congregational Church on Main Street, where the names of 32 homeless people from Cape Cod who died in the past year were read as a memorial to their passing, but also as a call to action. Later, 10 locals braved those cold temperatures and slept on the lawn of St. Barnabas Church, some in tents and others on the ground, to raise awareness of this acute local challenge.
In the last five years BTEO has assisted more than 100 families in providing shelter in the winter months for Falmouth’s homeless population. The problem is real. The problem is local. The problem is ours to solve. Currently BTEO uses the funds raised through its various charitable events to rent two homes for the winter, providing food and shelter for 12 people who would otherwise spend the winter out in the cold. Its mission, simply stated on its website www.bteofalmouth.com, clearly describes its focus: “Our mission is to provide housing to our homeless neighbors during the winter months.” Simple but powerful.
So, on Saturday night at the coaxing of BTEO president and CEO Paul McCadam, I joined several other Falmouthites and slept outside to help call attention to the plight of our neighbors who do not have a place to call home. In Paul’s own words, he sleeps out each year because “If you don’t experience the pain of homelessness, you can’t know what homelessness is all about.” This acute awareness drives him to lead an organization with a diverse board of dedicated volunteers with a laser-focused mission. “Even me [sic] could be homeless,” he noted. “Even me [sic] could be,” he repeated, as if to emphasize the power of those words and their true potential. As the group of us discussed that mission and how each of the attendees gives of themselves to further the cause, a single theme was woven through the evening: we can and should help locally. Michael Kasparian, whose tent provided shelter from the breeze for me and whose friendship and wise counsel provide shelter for many in our community, simply noted (other than the fact that he came for Joe’s soup) to me that, “We have to support this cause. Anybody could be homeless. The key is awareness.” That key unlocked the door to awareness, as many passersby asked about the tents on the lawn. Many more who saw the pictures posted on social media inquired as well and asked how to help. There is a donate button on the BTEO website, and donations got directly to help Falmouthites in need.
BTEO treasurer Joe Lemay, who generously made soup and coffee for those who braved the night outside before heading out himself, noted that “lots of people want to help but don’t know how. BTEO creates a way to help.” Joe is a wealth of information and entertained the attendees with his vast knowledge of everything from astronomy to gastronomy. BTEO advisory board member Annie Polachi recounted a moving event of a cold and rainy day in Boston, when she provided sweatpants and a sandwich to a homeless person on the street and engaged him in conversation, personalizing the plight of the homeless and the humanity of this homeless man. BTEO aims to do that on the local level. Our local homeless people have a story. They have a history. And with the help of BTEO, they have a future. As Carolyn Hall, another of the sleepover crew who also slept without a tent on the cold, raw ground, noted, “Not having a space to call your own for one night makes you appreciate everything you have. It helps you understand how truly blessed we are. The homeless suddenly become people.”
Board member and community outreach officer Norma Railey offered me, in addition to her ever-present smile, a warm blanket donated by Setting the Space to supplement the couple I had brought. I’m glad she did—I needed all of them. Norma’s indefatigable determination is contagious; she has developed a network of business supporters and more than 100 volunteers to help BTEO reach its goal. Its next event is the third annual Claddagh Bowl, a fun-filled bowling event on March 15 at the Trade Center Bowl in Falmouth that combines bowling, raffles, music and laughs into an unforgettable night of charity.
Alan Burt, who serves as BTEO’s intake and care coordinator, has decades of experience on Cape Cod assisting with homeless prevention and care. He is the founder of Homeless not Hopeless and is, as Norma noted, the “heart and soul of BTEO.” He described the multilateral fear we all feel related to homelessness, from its concept as something “scary” to the realization of “it could be me” to a true analysis of whether each of us is truly doing our duty to fulfill the biblical charge to be thy brother’s keeper. For Alan, serving those who most desperately need help is a way to answer that philosophical question.
For me, the solstice, the homeless awareness night were particularly poignant. It brought me back to a different, more-painful and more-desperate time in my life. I gazed up at the stars through the frigid darkness and was filled with the warmth of immense gratitude. You see, there was a day, there was a time in my journey where all my scorecards read zero and I chose a spot in the woods on Dillingham Avenue to be my home. As I noted in my book “Out of the Woods,” “I had almost no battery left on my phone, no hope in my heart, and no will to live. My prison made of scrub oak suited me just fine on that day…” Fortunately for me the Falmouth community, led by the Falmouth Police and Fire Rescue Departments, swooped me up and helped me out. Today, that’s just what BTEO does for others in need.
So, as Joe Lemay noted, BTEO creates a way to help. To help our neighbors, to help our friends, and in cases like mine, to help and remind ourselves, even “me” could be homeless. Yes, even “me.”
Mr. Clarkson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @TroyClarkson59.