‘I've Felt Alone A Lot’: For A Night, Housed And Unhoused Vermonters Share Their Stories
Keith Gokey doesn’t usually like to talk in groups, but on a warm August evening, he stood in front of a crowd of strangers beneath a big white pine in White River Junction.
He talked about what happens when he goes shopping. “I just feel like people are looking at me funny,” he said. “I feel like people are looking down on me, just because I'm homeless. I don't want to give a s---, but sometimes I do.”
Gokey has a big yellow beard and blue eyes. He’s been homeless on and off for a couple years. Since winter, he’s lived in a 6-by-10 cabin made of Styrofoam with a propane tank and space heater.
He said he likes it out in the woods.
“I got my little boombox, so I can listen to music and know what the weather's gonna be,” he told me before the performance. “I got a camp stove that hooks up to my propane tank as well. So, I mean, I got everything I need, and nothing that I really don't need.”
Gokey has a job working outside, mostly landscaping and lawn care. He and his girlfriend have been together for almost 10 years. They have two cats — one he rescued from the inside of a garbage bag when she was a kitten. His girlfriend keeps them at her apartment in the winter. He has them in the warmer months.
“The cats are basically our children,” he said. “Our son and daughter. I know it may sound weird, but if you love your animals, like you do your own kids, you see where I'm coming from.”
But most people don’t know where he’s coming from. They don’t know about the campsite he keeps clear of cigarette butts and any trash, his job — where he cut five cords of wood that day — his relationship, his pets.
A few months ago, a friend invited Gokey to participate in a program called Telling My Story. The program, developed in 1999 and now run by a nonprofit, aims to bring unlike communities together to break down social barriers between the groups.
It's taught over several weeks, mostly in correctional facilities and substance use treatment centers in Vermont. It was offered as a class at Dartmouth College for many years, where this reporter took part in a workshop.
This is the first time the program included people who are housed and people who are experiencing homelessness.
"The main challenge was building trust,” said Simon Dennis, a participant who runs the Center for Transformational Practice in White River Junction. “There was this kind of sense on the part of really everybody like, ‘What’s going on here? Is this a situation that is exploiting anybody? Or is it a sincere situation?’”
Dennis is involved in advocating for unhoused community members in Hartford. He helped organize the group, and invited Gokey to join, along with about a dozen others who are unhoused, own their homes, and everything in between.
The group met for two months at the Main Street Museum in White River Junction. They spent a lot of time together doing exercises, like writing down words that represent possibility and limitations, then sharing with the group. They also talked about policy changes that could help decriminalize emergency shelters.
All this helped them become “more human to one another,” Dennis said. “Through that experience, we were able to develop the courage to say, 'OK, we are together going to go in front of the people and say our piece.'”
Their piece included drumming and a stack of cardboard boxes with hand-painted phrases like “freedom from fear,” “prioritise human life” and “abundance for all.” But the main act was the performers sharing personal stories.
Beyond this one-time public platform, participants said the experience has made them feel less alone.
“It just made me realize that there's other people that give a s---,” said Olivia Hurd, another participant. “I've felt alone a lot with the homeless thing, and looked down on and just all sorts of stereotypes.”
Gokey said the process has been good for him.
“I don’t like to be in groups, and Simon’s kind of taken me out of that shell and opened me up more,” he said.
At the end of the performance, there was a discussion with the audience. Someone talked about how she’s guilty of looking down on people who are homeless. Another woman said she’s in a precarious housing situation herself.
Eventually, as it was getting dark, the crowd dispersed. They made it back to where they were sleeping for the night — wherever that might be.
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.