In Hyannis, angst and debate about homelessness
Tourist haven not immune from scourge of homelessness, addiction
HYANNIS — He was already wet by the time he stepped off Main Street and sloshed through snow across the Hyannis Village Green, as daylight bled away on a drizzly winter afternoon.
The charming little park at the heart of a Cape Cod tourist village was Ray Bastille’s go-to spot, a place he often spoke about, where he would come on nights when he was homeless and high, to curl up on the bandstand and sleep out of the rain.
He looked older than his 57 years that evening, last March. But then Ray had looked old since he first became homeless in the 1970s. He spoke in mumbles, had the sorrowful eyes of a “basset hound puppy,” as one friend described them, and his deeply creased face sagged.
Few knew better the dark side of Cape Cod — the place not pictured on postcards, where people suffer from the problems of homelessness, addiction, and opiate-related overdoses.
While statistics suggest the Cape’s problems are not exceptional when compared with other areas of the state, their presence is jarring against a tableau of beach mansions, sand dunes, and sun-bleached cedar shingles.
Public debate over what to do about the homeless in the tourist haven has flared periodically for years, much of it centered on downtown Hyannis and the village green where Ray sought refuge from the rain. Debate hit a fever pitch this past summer, after a Kentucky tourist wrote the Cape Cod Times to complain that “Hyannis is quickly becoming an abyss for the homeless and drug-ridden.”
Homeless people tend to seek out Hyannis because the village offers a variety of services — “72 social service organizations,” said William Cronin, 76, president of the Greater Hyannis Civic Association, including the NOAH shelter, the Cape’s only such facility for homeless individuals.
“Unfortunately,” he said of the agencies, “they attract the homeless.”
“You get ’em all over Main Street,” he said, in a Globe interview. “They’re panhandling. They’re annoying the tourists. There’s one girl down here who had to clean human feces out of her doorway before she could open her store. Others have had to take needles out of their flower boxes. It’s just gotten out of hand.”
What causes homelessness in Vacationland is the same as anywhere else: job losses and poverty, mental illness, family history, substance abuse.
Alcohol use was an intractable vine tangled throughout Ray Bastille’s family tree.
As young men in Fall River, Ray and his brother Norbert would push their mother in a wheelchair, while she sipped a 40-ounce beer through a straw, said Norbert’s daughter, Christine.
Ray grew up unfailingly polite — an old-school gentleman, friends said, with an instinct for service, even when he had little to offer.
He would survive decades on the streets and in illegal homeless camps in Hyannis, a village of Barnstable, battling a devastating alcohol addiction that later metastasized into spates of heroin abuse.
Ray’s brother Norbert died in 2006, in a Dartmouth motel. The medical examiner ruled the cause to be “acute and chronic” alcohol abuse. He was 60.
Ray seemed on a similar path, but then his life began to change, shortly after his brother’s death and around the time he met Kristoph Pydynkowski, now a substance abuse counselor and recovery coach at the Gosnold on Cape Cod treatment facility in Falmouth, who became one of Ray’s best friends.
Pydynkowski helped Ray remember how to read. They went to 12-step meetings together. Ray’s quality of life improved. He got a bank account, took some odd jobs. He spent less time on the streets and more in rooming houses for recovering addicts, known as sober houses, around Falmouth.
Yet, he was still sometimes drawn to the streets of Hyannis, his old haunt, like water seeking a level spot. He’d go there when his exhausting cycle of detox, treatment, and relapse drove him to disconnect for a time from the addiction recovery community that had embraced him.
He would not give up, but sometimes he’d have to get away.
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People come daily to the NOAH shelter steady like the tides, sweeping in around 4 p.m., sweeping out the next morning by 7:30. The shelter is about two blocks off Main Street. Several homeless people interviewed recently on the village green seemed sympathetic toward those who complain that the homeless are bad for the tourist business.
“Homeless cause a lot of trouble,” said Bo Chu, who said he was 75, referring primarily to people who congregate in camps in the woods. “They’re messy. Sometimes they leave their needles around. They can be noisy and they can be intimidating.”
Chu seems prone to long pauses and non sequiturs. He said his dream is to buy a $2 million ferry boat. “Two million is two times ten to the sixth,” he said, using correct scientific notation. He had learned to deal with big numbers, he said, grabbing his head, “but it’s all rusty.”
He said he makes camp in a secret place, though had stayed recently at NOAH in bad weather. “Even a dog has to get out of the rain.”
NOAH’s capacity is 60 people. A small American flag hangs on the lobby wall, near posters about hepatitis. A sign says: “You don’t need to be crazy to work here, we’ll train you.”
In a recent discussion with the Globe, homeless people at NOAH drew a distinction between shelter-goers, who must be sober, and people who populate homeless camps.
Several said that they had been unfairly portrayed in public debates over homelessness and that it can feel like they’re not allowed to be anyplace. Business people and police officers are continually shooing them away, they said.
“You go into a store and you got a backpack” — a clue that a person may be homeless — “and they give you attitude,” said Brent Smith, who is 58 with clear blue eyes. He said he notices the eye rolls in his direction and the way merchants try to rush him along.
“There needs to be a better world,” he said.
NOAH has been in its current spot since 1986. Its $900,000 annual budget comes from state sources with some local donations, said Frederic Presbrey, president of the nonprofit Housing Assistance Corporation, which runs NOAH.
It seems to be a commonly held theory in the village that Hyannis’s homelessness problem became worse this year because Boston closed its Long Island shelter in late 2014.
“Ugh! I cannot repeat this enough times,” said NOAH’s director, Greg Bar, in an e-mail. “NOAH has seen no rise in guests from Boston.”
A 2015 homelessness count on Cape Cod and the Islands identified 362 homeless individuals, after recording 381 in 2014.
The Cape had a lower homeless rate than some other largely rural and suburban areas of the state, such as Worcester County and the Western Massachusetts counties of Berkshire, Franklin, and Hampshire, according to 2014 federal figures.
In September, after discussions with community leaders, Housing Assistance Corporation agreed to move the shelter. To where? They don’t yet know. Presbrey said he agrees the shelter should relocate to a facility that can offer more services, in a different place.
Sean Breen, a soft-spoken 25-year old, in red-framed eyeglasses and a knit cap, didn’t see the logic. “I’m just trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy,” he said, after several months homeless. Moving the shelter farther from the help he needs to get out of the place “seems ass-backwards to me.”
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Christine Bastille last saw Uncle Ray in 2014, at a wake in Fall River, she said. He was clean-shaven and in a suit. “The guy had never owned a suit in his life.”
Ray was nervous about being in Fall River, another old haunt full of temptations. I can’t stay here too long, he told her.
Last February, Pydynkowski and friends brought Ray to Loon Mountain Resort. Ray boasted: I’ll show you guys how to ski. Just watch!
One tumbling run down the bunny slope and it was clear he was no skier. Ray’s friends skied alongside him, holding his hands to keep him upright.
Ray got out of another addiction treatment around March 13, said Pydynkowski, who spoke to him at the time. Ray didn’t seem to have a plan for what came next.
The next day, Ray was back in Hyannis. Around 5 p.m., Bastille and a homeless friend walked across the snowy Village Green.
Ray had looked for heroin that night, the friend later told the police, though it didn’t seem he found any. They drank vodka on the bandstand until they fell asleep. Temperatures dipped into the 30s. In the morning, Ray’s skin was blue. There was a little crusty blood around his nostrils. The medical examiner’s ruling was chillingly familiar: death by acute and chronic alcohol abuse, same as his brother.
An online fund-raiser collected the money to lay him to rest. His service drew a big crowd.