Former homeless organize to bring hope after death

  • Destiny Cooper, from left, George Ballentine, Kerri Dionne Santos, and Ricardo Santos stand by the woods where their friends Clayton “Aaron” Wheeler and Kathy Grady were found dead in their tent earlier this week. They have started the group “Hope for the Homeless,” which will try to help the community’s homeless with donations and support. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Colleagues and friends of former KFC employee Kathy Grady, who died earlier this week, show support at the KFC in Greenfield where there is a dropbox for donations. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Kerri Dionne Santos, front, and George Ballentine walk near the woods where their friends Clayton "Aaron" Wheeler and Kathy Grady were found dead in their tent earlier this week. They have started the group "Hope for the Homeless," which will try to help the communities homeless with donations and support. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Colleagues and friends of former KFC employee Kathy Grady, who died earlier this week, show support at the KFC in Greenfield where there is a dropbox for donations. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 1/25/2019 7:27:31 AM

GREENFIELD — Kerri Dionne-Santos remembers when she was homeless. So does her husband Ricardo Santos. As does George Ballentine, who lived in an abandoned building for two years. They remember living in the outskirts of society where people’s assumptions and labels leave you feeling farther outside. 

“Nobody understands more than people that have been there. We’ve been there,” Ricardo Santos, a Turners Falls resident, said. “We were fortunate enough to come out of that bad stuff, and we could now do it for somebody else.”

In the wake of the deaths of their friends Clayton “Aaron” Wheeler and Kathleen Grady, a group of community residents has formed “Hope for the Homeless.” The group plans to both raise money, clothing and hygiene items for the homeless who are often unseen and in the woods, as well as to help push forward political action on behalf of the city. 

Wheeler and Grady were found dead Monday at a homeless encampment off the Mohawk Trail near the I-91 rotary following a bout of frigid polar weather.

“We’re just community members trying to help the community,” said Dionne-Santos, who moved to the community when she came to the Beacon House for recovery. “The most we can do right now is bring awareness so the right people can look at the problem.” 

Ballentine, Dionne-Santos and her co-workers at the KFC on the Mohawk Trail in Greenfield — where the woman they knew as “Kathy” had worked for about four years — have already started collecting donations, both money and physical items. There is a collection bin at the KFC and at The RECOVER Project on Federal Street. 

They will be distributing the donations at The RECOVER Project on Feb. 2, but also will be handing out items like socks, sweaters, gloves to the homeless people they know, who live in the woods and around town. 

Ballentine estimates there are about 200 homeless people in Greenfield, between those he works with through the Recovery Learning Community, and through his knowledge of both the recovery community and the homeless community, which can intersect at times. He notes a lot of people are under-housed, meaning they are couch-surfing or in recovery programs that provide transitional but non-permanent housing. 

“The goal is to raise awareness and have some sort of concrete solution,” Ballentine said. “The end game is to work with city hall to come up with some sort of solution of what we can do as a community.”

“We want people to know there is help,” Destiny Cooper said, a fellow co-worker at KFC, a Turners Falls resident and a student at Greenfield Community College studying criminal justice. 

The group has its own Facebook page and is beginning informal partnerships with many recovery and reform-minded groups in Greenfield. While the partnerships with these groups will help bring them credibility, Ballentine said, it could also distance them from the vulnerable residents they want to help but who through a variety of reasons do not trust these organizations or institutions. 

One goal of the group is to push forward a “Code Blue” policy in Greenfield, which is something that is on the books in Boston. Calling a Code Blue during times of extreme weather can allow places like churches and government buildings to get clear of normal state or federal hurdles to housing people overnight. 

Ballentine said some people in town thought this was also a policy in Greenfield and tried to dial 311 during the most recent cold snap, but were not helped because of no relevant ordinance in Greenfield. 

The City Council had planned an emergency meeting next Tuesday to discuss this issue, but instead had to cancel it because of an expected lack of a quorum. There will be a meeting of state delegates, like Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, at Greenfield High School Monday, at 7 p.m. 

Ballentine and his nascent group have been thinking for a while what they could do to bring about change. Cooper said she thought about it when folks were sleeping on the Greenfield Common this summer, “but there was no support” in the community for this. Ballentine said he’s been working on this issue on his own since around then. 

“We’re trying to make the resources accessible,” Dionne-Santos said. She hopes to avoid having people in emergency situations need to show identification or proof of income to receive food or clothing. “Just because they were kicked off the Common doesn’t mean they don’t exist. People are dying.” 

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264




Greenfield Recorder

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