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Hunger, Cold, Loneliness: Two Homeless Laborers Cope

By Bianca Vazquez Toness (WBUR)

In Massachusetts, homeless families are signing up for shelters and temporary housing in record numbers. Last month, more than 2,500 families stayed in shelters or hotels paid for by the state and another 3,000 homeless individuals sought state help. Two such men, Jon Snyder and Kevin Tripp, could be found at a shelter on the South Shore earlier this week.

Jon Snyder, 52, is a laborer. He’s been homeless for two years. He and his friend Kevin Tripp hang out at the Wareham train stop during the day because there’s a roof and the police don’t come through there. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)
Jon Snyder, 52, is a laborer. He’s been homeless for two years. He and his friend Kevin Tripp hang out at the Wareham train stop during the day because there’s a roof and the police don’t come through there. (Bianca Vazquez Toness/WBUR)

Dinner's over and two homeless men and a volunteer are smoking at the back entrance of the Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene in Wareham.

JON SNYDER: It was freezing cold one morning and a lady blows her tire out. I went right over there and changed her tire. She gave me $40.

Jon Snyder helped build houses all his life, but with construction at a standstill, he's now taking whatever work he can get.

SNYDER: And she didn't know if I was a bum or what I was. But she was willing to give me that money. Now that money was like gold to me. You know what I mean? But I heard her tire go. I followed her down the road and — I did — I took advantage of the situation, yes I did.

He'll be back on the street tomorrow, but tonight Snyder has a place to stay and hot food in his belly.

SNYDER: Oh, everybody's gonna go home now, huh?

Snyder gently teases the two families who've cooked dinner for him and the other men at the shelter this week. While hugging Snyder, one man tries to slip him $20 so he can fill up the gas tank in his truck.

[Snyder protests as he's offered money.]

Snyder is handsome, with ice-blue eyes, wind-burned skin. He smiles and laughs even while he's talking about the harshest deprivation.

SNYDER: I've been a laborer all my life. I don't read or write very... you know... so I don't sit down at a computer, and I'm not going to do any of that pencil work. There's no building going on. And I don't care what aspect you're going to — whether it's framing or drywall or painting or whatever -- there's no work going on, there's nothing. The bottom has just kinda, like, dropped out.

This started two or three years ago, he says, and that's when he got into trouble with his wife, because he wasn't bringing home enough money. They eventually split and he's been sleeping in the woods or in his truck ever since. Snyder has a certain bravado about his homelessness. He frequently challenges others to survive in the winter without shelter, as he does.

His friend, Kevin Tripp, doesn't have the same bravado. Or a truck, for that matter. He's had nowhere to put his stuff since a friend got tired of hosting him and kicked him out. That was seven months ago.

KEVIN TRIPP: I can't get up in the morning and pull out a dresser drawer and grab a fresh pair of socks.

Tripp, like Snyder, is 52 years old and homeless. He spent two decades working for Midas and Meineke before going out on his own. But now, poor health stops him from doing the work that pays a lot, like putting in a transmission. He says he's applied for jobs all over Wareham.

TRIPP: There's nothing. I've stooped as low as to dishwash, and I'll still dishwash. I don't care, it's money in the pocket. It's warmth. If I wash dishes I can eat food, I can associate with people. The hard part is: Do I get up in the morning on time? Do I get there? How do I get home? How do I wash up? Am I going to have the same clothes on for a week, going to the same job? Am I going to be able to shave and look respectable?

Tripp is tall and lean, with a full head of long brown hair and hound-dog eyes. For him, one of the worst things about being homeless is the boredom.

TRIPP: It's the hang-around that kills you. To pace back and forth. There's no place to go. I think a little bit of companionship would help too. Just to go out and associate with someone. Go to a movie, go bowling, go play pinball. Go play -- hit some golf balls, walk the beach. But nobody wants to go with a bum. He's got no money.

[Sounds of breakfast at the shelter]

After eating breakfast, Tripp and Snyder get a ride to town and try to scare up work when they can, filling out applications and talking to their contacts. They spend the rest of the time at the only place where the police won't harass them.

TRIPP: Here we are again...home of the brazerie.

With no work scheduled today, they'll just wait around, hoping someone will come by with any job — however small.

This program aired on March 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Bianca Vázquez Toness Twitter Reporter
Bianca Vázquez Toness was formerly a report for WBUR.

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