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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 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 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.

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.”

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