Squatting in Hyannis

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  8/23/2002

HYANNIS - Down a narrow path in the woods surrounding this Cape Cod beach town, beyond the booby trap meant to keep out unwanted visitors, there's a small clearing in the pine trees where, for the past month, Tom and Nancy have been building a home.

With branches, leaves, and pinecones for camouflage, a roof that leaks, and a few crates stocked with canned soup, macaroni, and jellybeans, their $29 tent from K Mart is hardly their dream house. There are the occasional run-ins with raccoons and their "pet" skunk, the rashes from poison ivy or whatever - and the bugs that Nancy hates.

But like dozens of other people living here in the woods, the homeless couple say they have nowhere else to go.

A month ago, after loud complaints from local residents and the business community, Barnstable police razed several squalid tent camps in the woods around Hyannis, where as many as 50 homeless people were living. Now, with the Cape's only shelter full and aid from charities dried up, many of those dispersed are returning - this time deeper in the woods, farther from the town center, and in places hidden from outreach workers and the police.

"Most people think the tents are gone - but they're wrong," said Tom, who, like others interviewed during a recent tour of his illegal campsite, wouldn't provide his last name. "The town tried to sweep us under the rug, but we can't go anywhere else."

For months, Hyannis authorities had been considering what to do about the town's growing homeless population. As garbage and human waste mounted at a half-dozen tent camps, several near a school and park, town officials and social workers last month decided the camps had to go. On July 15, after giving the homeless one week's notice, workers used bulldozers to clear 1 1/2 tons of trash and unclaimed possessions.

The action left several dozen people in the lurch, those like Tom, 45, and Nancy, 41, who recently became homeless after having lived on the Cape for years. For several weeks, the Salvation Army paid for many to stay at a private campsite in Sandwich. But when the money for that ran out, most of them began quietly returning to the woods in Hyannis.

News of their return has brought new demands for action to prevent the homeless from living in the woods, where many abuse alcohol and drugs, angering area residents.

"It won't be tolerated - these tents won't be allowed," said Gary Blazis, president of the Barnstable Town Council. "I will make sure the police are aware it's happening. I will inform the human resources people that they need to address the situation. This is an inhumane thing."

What's inhumane, say Nancy and Tom, are the ever-rising rents and the scarcity of shelter space. Others, such as Jim, a 56-year-old Vietnam veteran who has lived on the Cape for two decades and has been homeless for four years, also complain about the cost of living.

"Where else would I go?" asked Jim, while eating lunch at the Salvation Army here this week. "Rents are ridiculous now. I have only the woods left."

About 1,200 homeless people live on the Cape, most of them in special shelters for families. At least 120 live outdoors, according to a survey this year by the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod & the Islands.

There is only one emergency adult shelter on the Cape - with room for only 50 people a night. And even those beds may be gone by the end of this year. A 20 percent state budget cut this year has forced officials at the privately run NOAH Center - for No Other Available Housing - to consider closing.

"What the police did was like a vigilante action," said Cheryl Bartlett, executive director of the Community Action group and a member of the committee on homelessness appointed by the Town Council. "I don't believe it got us what we needed - which was security and safety for the neighborhood. Now the problem is more concerning. Before, at least, we knew where they were."

Some social workers aren't as worried, and they applauded the police action last month.

"The fact that they're deeper in the woods, in a place where people aren't near them, means the risk to other people has been reduced," said Rick Brigham, director of The NOAH Center, which bars anyone from entering who has been drinking or doing drugs. "That's a benefit."

Still, he and others believe the ultimate solution is creating more shelter, including places where addicts can spend the night indoors. In coming months, Brigham said, he believes the town will agree to provide such a space.

The town is considering leasing a building that by the end of next month may provide temporary shelter to as many as 20 people a night, according to Joellen Daley, assistant town manager of Barnstable. The goal, she and others insist, is to ensure that no one has to live in the woods, especially as winter approaches.

"We're working to address the issue - with both long-term and short-term solutions," Daley said.

Tom and Nancy are just hoping the rain holds off until they can afford a place to live.

Tom, a former building contractor who says he has an associate degree in engineering from the Wentworth Institute of Technology, has been homeless for more than a year now, the result of health problems and his inability to cover his rent, he says. Nancy, a longtime waitress who says she graduated with a bachelor's degree in nursing from Curry College, became homeless in March because a job fell through.
The two met at the Salvation Army six months ago and have been living together in the woods ever since.

To avoid being caught, they leave the site early in the morning, when geese and airplanes wake them, and sneak back late at night, with flashlights or homemade candles, and fall asleep to the sound of crickets. And despite their shabby abode, decorated with a framed poster, a small Tasmanian devil doll, and all their possessions hung from branches - a bikini, fins and a snorkel, gloves, and an old suitcase - they haven't lost their sense of humor.

"Look at these shrubs - you'll never guess what we paid for them," said Nancy with a wink as she swatted away a bee. "This is our home," she added. "Isn't this nice and homey."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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