WORCESTER >> His sign reads, "Wife & I homeless and hungry. Anything helps. Thank you."
It's 1:30 on a hot Monday afternoon in August, and 25-year-old Ryan Matthews, shirtless, is panhandling on the corner of Franklin Street and McGrath Boulevard, asking passing motorists for money. On a good day, he says, he can make 30 to 40 dollars.
Under the Green Street railroad bridge across the street sits his fiancee, Tracy Peters, who is not actually his wife yet, but they hope to get married soon. "I was homeless with him for a few months while being pregnant," she says. "Nobody would help us. We were sleeping in bus stops and the corners of buildings."
Three weeks ago, Peters gave birth to a baby boy they named Gage, after a demonic child in the Stephen King horror story "Pet Sematary." On a Saturday night, state child-welfare authorities took the infant, she says. Today, she is back out here, sitting under the bridge. The baby is her fourth child, she says. An older son, under her mother's guardianship, is 5. A pair of daughters, in state care, are 2 and 1.
She is 23.
"We're planning to get married in the next couple weeks," said Matthews. "Her last marriage was at City Hall. I would like to find a place we could have it, somewhere our homeless friends could come to. Everybody could come in, have food and have a good time together. Sept. 1 will make a year we've been together. I knew right away this is the one I want to spend my life with."
More than 1,500 homeless people were recorded in Worcester County in a count made at the beginning of the year by the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance.
On Aug. 15, Matthews and Peters were under the Green Street railroad bridge with two companions who regularly "sign" there, Emily, 30, who preferred not to give her last name, and her fiance, Dan Robertson, 31. Emily dozed as she sat on the sidewalk, head on her knees, surrounded by paperback books, shoes, a backpack, water bottles and a guitar case.
The group agreed to describe life on the streets.
"It sucks," said Matthews. "Thank God we do have the bridge we can be under and the Worcester police don't mind our being here. I've only been homeless a few months now out here, but it sucks. You do meet a few people who have a heart and realize not everyone out here is doing drugs. Some people are just having a rough time of it, can't make ends meet."
Matthews said he is originally from North Adams and was homeless "for a good five years out there." Worcester, he said, "gives a little more towards the homeless, but it's still rough, because Saturdays and Sundays, there's nowhere to go and get free meals."
He spends nights at a homeless encampment at a skate park under the railroad overpass a block away, off Plymouth Street. He said sleeping outside at the skate park is preferable to a cot at the homeless shelter at 25 Queen St., which some still call the PIP Shelter, after the old People in Peril facility in Main South it replaced.
"I could go live in the PIP Shelter if I wanted to, but I don't feel safe in there," Matthews said. "I don't want to live around drugs every day, worry about my stuff being stolen. I can leave all my stuff down in that skate park and it won't get touched.
"We've made a connection with the guys that skate there that they watch our stuff during the day and we watch their skate park at night— we don't let people vandalize it. We had an officer come in and tell us last night we pretty much are the police down there. Someone comes down there trying to do drugs or vandalize stuff, we have every right to throw them out."
Peters has been staying since June at Visitation House, a home on Endicott Street for women facing crisis pregnancies. She said she lost six pints of blood having the baby at UMass Memorial Medical Center and nearly died. "I had him for three weeks," she said. After she was seen under the Green Street bridge with the infant, she said, the state Department of Children and Families came and took the child.
She has lived on the streets, off and on, for some time. With her ex-husband, she said, she was homeless for nearly a year.
Matthews said, "I want to at least have a one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment where I can raise my family, be happy, not have to struggle every day. I work these little dead-end jobs all the time and am not making ends meet. I make more money signing in a day than I do working a job."
He said he had a job interview the following day at the Palladium for a position as a parking lot attendant. "It's hard," he said. "I've been homeless and had jobs and the employers don't like that you have to take a bus to work, you're not coming in freshly showered every day or shiny and clean, so you end up losing the job due to being homeless."
Last month Matthews was charged with a felony, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, namely, a folding playpen, according to court records. He said when a larger woman had attacked the pregnant Peters he threw the playpen between them "to defuse the situation" and was charged.
"A lot of jobs don't want to take me because of that," he said. "Other than that, there's no reason I can't get a job. It's just battling to get these jobs from the college kids, from the people who already have these jobs."
He said Emily and her fiance, Robertson, fixtures under the Green Street bridge, "make a boatload because they've been in this spot for a while. They've got a bunch of regulars that come by."
Emily stressed she is no longer homeless. After living on the streets in Worcester for five years, she now does have a place to stay, a room in Spencer. She takes the bus here each day to help Robertson. "I sign with my fiance to help him make money," she said. "I'm a girl and can get more money."
Robertson sleeps at the skate park, and Emily spends Saturday and Sunday nights with him there because the bus doesn't run back to Spencer on weekend nights. "We have a big bed put together for the both of us," she said. "During the week he takes all the blankets for himself."
Robertson said: "Every work truck that goes by I ask if they have (anything). Nobody wants to hire me because I'm holding a sign that says, 'Homeless.' They think I'm unreliable.
"I can't get a job because I don't have a place to live," he said. "And I don't have a place to live because I can't get a job."
Asked about drugs, Matthews said he occasionally smokes marijuana, but others on the street do use heroin. One man overdosed at the skate park the other night, he said. "We keep Narcan with us," he said. AIDS Project Worcester leaves the anti-overdose medication for them at the skate park, along with clean needles. "We know a lot of people who use, but we don't want to see them die," he said. "If you use, you use, but do it safely."
They eat breakfast at the soup kitchen at St. John's Church, lunch at the Salvation Army and dinner at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen, the Mustard Seed, on Piedmont Street. They use bathrooms at the WRTA bus hub, Union Station, the library or City Hall.
"St. John's has been a huge help," Matthews said of the Catholic church around the corner on Temple Street. Peters described how Billy Riley, director of the St. Francis Xavier Center soup kitchen and food pantry there, slipped her food and juice when she was pregnant and on the street. "He would give me snacks to hold me over for the day," she said. "He's like, 'You're pregnant, you can't go hungry.' "
At the skate park, colorful graffiti art completely covered the walls under the railroad overpass. The whoosh of wheels on metal echoed as two skateboarders practiced on the ramps. Matthews showed visitors around the encampment where he said 11 people were staying. The beds were fashioned from blankets and cardboard piled on top of wooden pallets that had been thrown away by a local Asian market. Paperback books, collected from the free shelves at the Worcester Public Library, were piled by Emily's bed.
"We take care of it, we don't let drugs, alcohol, none of that in here, he said. "We try to keep it clean. There's only so much we can do. It's a rough situation. We read nonstop, every night. We all have headlamp lights, flashlights. I have a portable camping light I'm going to be bringing down here. We try to make it almost feel like home."
On the street "you lose all track of time," he said. He uses the clock on a prepaid smartphone. "I make it so my phone goes off every couple hours, so I'll actually look at it and remember, 'Oh my God, it's 3 o'clock in the afternoon on Friday.
"Every day starts to feed into another day. We wake up, we do the same thing every day. Last night, we were saying, 'I'll never complain about a mattress or waterbed again.'
"One hand washes the other down here," he said. "We all help each other survive. I bring food, Dan brings food. We all keep each other going. A lot of people trash on us: 'Oh, you're homeless, you don't really do anything all day.' That's not the case."
Peters said, "We're not all druggies, we're not all alcoholics. We're looking for money to get food. One night at Worcester City (Motel) is $70. If we can make that up one night, with four of us putting our money together, that's at least one night in a bed and a shower, for one night at least."
Emily said, "Just respect us for the people we are. Realize we have a story behind us."
Matthews said, "Come by, see us, say, 'Hey, you wanna work a day, I'll give you some money.' " He gestured to Robertson. "Me and him would jump right up and go work. If we can do anything to make 20 bucks, 20 bucks feeds us for two or three days.
"We want to be active members of society," he said. "We don't want to be sitting here with signs."
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com