High School And Homeless In Westport

Staples students are spending this summer in many ways. Some have paid jobs; others are interns. Some travel, or take courses. A few sleep in every day.

Brian Saunders was homeless.

Until recently, the rising senior lived in a comfortable Westport home. He still does.

But for a full week, he wandered around Westport. He ate cheap or free meals wherever he could. He slept in a car, a doorway and a baseball dugout.

Brian Saunders, a few days after his week of homelessness ended.

Brian Saunders, a few days after his week of homelessness ended.

Brian did all this willingly. Inspired by an AP English reading assignment — Into the Wild — he wanted to experience life without all the possessions he’d grown used to. Homelessness and isolation were foreign concepts to him. A week on his own — in his home town — seemed like a way to gain insights into himself, and others.

Brian — whose extracurricular activities include Kool To Be Kind, Young Democrats and the Circle of Friends program with special needs children — talked to Barbara Butler and Sarah Cocker at Human Services, and Pete Powell, former president of Homes With Hope.

Brian spoke with a Westport police officer, who was not happy with his plan. Neither were school and religious officials, who said he could not sleep on their property because of liability.

His parents were not thrilled either.

But Brian embarked on his mission. He spent hours in the Westport Library. He trudged all over town, carrying a change of clothes in a trash bag. (An actual homeless man scoffed, “We use backpacks. This is not New York City. We blend in.”)

He ate meals at McDonald’s and the Gillespie Center. With only a pillow and blanket — no sleeping bag — he spent uncomfortable nights in a friend’s car, the Coleytown Elementary School Little League dugout, and the doorway of a fitness center.

Brian befriended other homeless people. There was an alcoholic, with 2 children in college. “He’s my parents’ age,” Brian says. “Things just broke down for him.”

Brian learned a lot from talking with residents. Some were regulars at the Gillespie Center, across Jesup Road from the police station.

Brian learned a lot from talking with residents. Some are regulars at the Gillespie Center, across Jesup Road from the police station.

There was a school bus driver who lost his home in the mortgage crisis, and now lives in his car. A former cocaine dealer. And a construction worker who — like many homeless people — shuttles between Westport and neighboring towns.

One man kept telling Brian, “go home.”

Brian learned that — contrary to popular belief that the Gillespie Center kitchen serves up wonderful meals every day, of cast-off dinner party delights —  the reality is far different. The food can be microwaved chicken patties, the social issues fraught, the noise level loud.

“This was really tiring. The nights were cold. But it energized me. It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve done,” Brian says. “It’s made me think about my life, and what I want to get out of it.”

One day, he sat on the lawn next to Restoration Hardware. “It was incredible. I was watching $100,000 cars fly by, talking to a former drug addict with lupus and hypertension who can’t get to a doctor. There was such a contrast between myself, him, and the town.”

This is the face of Westport to many. The homeless are often invisible.

This is the face of Westport to many. The homeless are often invisible.

Brian says his week on the streets provided “a chance for me to slow down, look around, and get some clarification before I move on in life.”

In college he may study neurology, psychology or biomedical engineering. Before that comes senior year at Staples.

Right now, he’s appreciating life back home.

The first thing he did after leaving the street was take a shower. That — and sleeping in his own bed — were “incredible.”

Since then, he’s looked around at all his “stuff.”

“I feel calmer now,” Brian says. “I think I have a better sense of what I want. And what I want to ignore.”

15 responses to “High School And Homeless In Westport

  1. I’m sure Brian’s heart is in the right place but to decide to be homeless for a week is insulting to those who are really homeless, they didn’t get to decide to just play at being without, it is very real for them, no backup system of home and family. Him deciding to have meals at the Gillespie center used resources that are for the needy, having the cash to eat at McDonald’s isn’t an option that homeless people often get.

  2. Dan,

    Thanks for bringing Brian’s experience to your readers. I believe Brian has enriched his life to understand what its like to live in another(s) shoes for a week. As a parent I wish there were other programs set up where teenagers or children could experience “in my shoes.” Perhaps Brian will start up a group that volunteers at the Gillespie Center or he gets a monthly group to get staples for the kitchen and gets others to give back. Bravo to you Brian and never accept negative feedback, constuctive feedback is always positive. You made a difference in yourself and now its being shared with others to do some soul searching. Keep doing what your doing Brian and best success to you in your future endeavors.

  3. Nice gesture on this kid’s part and I hate to be a cynic, but this sounds more like the makings of a college application essay than a life lesson. In the end, this kid knew he’d be back in the lap of luxury and, at any time, could have gone home or to a friend’s house, unlike the rest of the people he met. This is just silly.

    • Knowing Brian as one of my best friends, I know that he’s had a rough time during his high school career. Despite being in the “lap of luxury” social life is not always easy for us teenagers in westport. After speaking to him, I see that he wanted to get away from the environment here and showcase that the wealth is not always what it’s made out to be. This is not something to just write an essay about, but an experience to learn and make life improvements from.

  4. I am really surprised that anyone is critical of what Brian did. I commend him for his efforts.

  5. If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

    Brian’s steps follow an American tradition. (As Jedediah Summers said to Thoreau “this sounds more like the makings of a book than a life lesson.”)

    Good luck, Brian.

  6. An “06880” reader sent this email. She asked that I not publish her name, as she is not yet ready to be “public.” Here are her insights:

    “I went to Bedford Middle School and graduated from Staples. I was a typical Westport teen. Except, I wasn’t. I was homeless.

    “When I was in middle school, I arrived in Westport. We lived at the Bacharach Community Homes (part of the Homes with Hope program), ready to start over and create a new life. Living in Westport and being homeless provided an interesting juxtaposition: I have vivid memories of foraging through the Food Pantry at the Gillespie Center on Friday nights, and spending Saturdays on my friends’ parents yacht. I remember applying for scholarships for every field trip and event that cost money, walking the scholarship request form to my teacher instead of a check. I worked at Williams Sonoma during the Holiday season, wrapping $2000 espresso machines, while our Christmas presents came from the Holiday Giving program run through the town’s Social Services division. These are events that have shaped my life. I will never forget them, and take them with me in everything that I do. I live in Washington D.C. I went to a top university. I work as a lobbyist. None of those things would have happened without the support and services that Westport provides.

    “Brian Saunders’ story struck a chord with me. At the end of his week, he went home–back to his life, his bed, his creature comforts. There is the homeless population that live on the streets or rent a room at the Gillespie Center, carrying their belongings in a backpack, but there is another population of homeless in Westport: The ones who live in emergency temporary town housing, who go to school with your sons, daughters, your siblings, and your friends. They go home to a homeless shelter shared with other families. They might not ‘look’ homeless, but they exist. Don’t forget about them. They need your support too.”

  7. Jo Ann Miller

    Thank You Dan for sharing. It is always good to expand our bubble. Thank You Brian. We should all be open to experiencing and learning from others. You sharing your journey will give more than what others have said you took away. If others hate being cynics, they have a choice, don’t be!

  8. This is incredibly admirable. Thank you for posting, Dan, and great thanks to this wonderful young man.

  9. I recently officiated at the funeral of a client of one of the Supportive Housing units of Homes with Hope. In my homily I mentioned the tremendous support the people of Westport have given to Homes with Hope. It only exists because of community support. The anonymous comment above from the woman who was a child at the Bacharach Community states this well. Where else can someone who lives at a homeless shelter be accepted by her peers in high school? No place other than here that I know of.

  10. Thanks to Brian for recognizing the homelessness that exists in this blessed community and for undertaking an examination of the difficulties that a homeless life creates. Thanks especially to your unnamed correspondent, Dan, who has lived in a homeless environment and can write so beautifully about it. Her submission gives all of us at Homes with Hope (and I am sure at our impressive Department of Human Services) great satisfaction that what we do in this generous community is worthwhile and valid. Her words are a vivid “thank you;” her history is a compelling tale of strength; and her confidence is, simply, inspiring.

  11. Ann Marie Flynn

    Congratulations Brian. You walked the talk and now have wonderful memories of how life should not be….but which many must endure. You took time out of your life to live and feel their pain, hear their hopes and be on the scene.
    Please hold on to these memories through out your life. They will do well for you and provide strength along the way. At times it’s harder to know where we are going rather than where we have been.
    I wish you all the best.

  12. Richard Lawrence Stein

    MB Murray wrote maybe Brian could start a group at Staples….. One group already exists….. It’s run by Chef Cecily Gans…. Chef as she is known, works with her culinary club kids once a month to make, deliver, and serve a healthy meal. The ingredients are gotten from the farmers market on Thursdays and whipped up to fantastic measures. She isn’t alone in this endeavor. The Westport farmers market is a big help as are the rotary folks…. Maybe more kids could help or more money could be donated to a staples teacher’s cause of feeding the less fortunate through her club. Either way maybe Brian should be commended on his act and now wash his hands and start cutting some vegetables.

  13. Eric William Buchroeder

    Jeez, it was only an AP English class and now the “nattering nabobs of negativism” want to assign Brian to permanent KP duty in the soup kitchen!!!! Give the poor kid a break!!!! You don’t want to know (and I’m not going to tell) what I did my SHS senior paper on for Mr. Wiener in 1970. Dan can probably dig it up if he wants to but it ain’t pretty although it would be funny to put it in 06880 to benchmark how far SHS and “the kids” have come in Westport in 43 years. Brian took a standard SHS rite of passage and did a fantastic job of getting outside the box that is Wetspot. There is cause for nothing but optimism!!!!!

  14. I get so annoyed at the criticism of a decent kid who was trying to walk in someone else’s shoes. Bravo, Brian, and a special thanks to the woman whose true story about when she was homeless was inspiring.