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Homelessness in the valley

If you or anyone you know needs help, call Benny Johnson. He will house, clothe and feed anyone who shows up at his modest apartment.

“30 Gatehouse Rd., Apartment 308, Amherst, Massachusetts. Come by anytime,” he told me during our first encounter.

Many nights, one or two people stay with him, other times much more.

“I’ve had this place full,” he said. “Sometimes I get out of bed and I’m stepping in people’s mouths.”

Even though the apartment has two bedrooms, Johnson sleeps in the living room to make his guests feel as comfortable as possible.

“Some people are shy, and wouldn’t feel as comfortable sleeping in the living room,” he said. “It’s my apartment and I feel comfortable wherever I am, so I don’t care.”

Johnson also cooks huge dinners on a regular basis. Last Wednesday he prepared Southern fried chicken, fish, omelets and finger foods for about 30 people.

“I put the word out. I want people to come to me,” he said. “What do I get out of it? I feel good that I know that I’m helping people. I know that Larry [a mentally handicapped man who lives in Johnson’s building] ain’t hungry.”

Johnson, 62, has been working for others most of his life. Upon moving to Northampton in 1982, he organized a Tenants Association for residents of the Florence Heights housing project to press the city’s Housing Authority to fix leaky roofs, broken pipes, cockroaches and other unsanitary living conditions.

When the complaints were ignored, Johnson appealed to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which successfully sued the Northampton Housing Authority for $100,000 in damages. Each family received $2,000, along with the maintenance they were entitled to.   

Johnson hasn’t slowed down since. Many nights, he can be seen on the streets of Amherst and Northampton, wearing a number of colorful capes and singing some of the 200 songs he has memorized, accompanied by a bucket he found in the trash several years ago and a kazoo that hangs around his neck.

This has earned him the alias “Motown Man.” “Because I play Motown music,” Johnson said.

He grew up in New Orleans and began playing music as early as he can remember, eventually traveling the world as a vocalist and drummer in a band with his five brothers.

“Music is my high,” he said. “When I’m playing, I don’t feel the injuries I have in my shoulder or spinal cord.”

Many think he is homeless when they see him playing on the street, a reaction Johnson hopes to provoke.

“I get a chance to change people’s mind about judging people … They tell me ‘you changed my way of thinking.’ That’s why I’m out on the street,” he said. “I never finished high school, but I feel like a psychiatrist … I make my rounds like a doctor, except, instead of a bag I got a bucket.”

Johnson hopes to persuade more to aid Amherst’s homeless population. In 2007, over 5,000 people in the Pioneer Valley experienced some period of homelessness, almost half of whom were families with children, according to a report commissioned by the mayors of Holyoke, Springfield and Northampton.

“[Homelessness] is a crisis. An unseen crisis, but a crisis,” Johnson said.

For those who cannot afford to aid the homeless financially, Johnson said there are other ways to help. Instead of ignoring a homeless person on the street one could point out places they can find help, as many are not aware of all the resources available to them, or simply make small talk.

“At least then they would feel like a human being,” Johnson said.

Yet Johnson lamented many do not even extend this small courtesy, including some people who call themselves Christians.

“A lot of people who go to church are against homeless people … They say ‘I’m not giving that crackhead no money, I’m not giving that wino no money,’” Johnson said. “These people forget that if Jesus were here he wouldn’t be hanging out with the rich people, he would be with the crackheads and the prostitutes.”

Chris Russell is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at crussell@student.umass.edu.

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