Scrolling Headlines:

UMass women’s soccer falls to Central Connecticut 3-0 in home opener -

August 19, 2017

Preseason serves as opportunity for young UMass men’s soccer players -

August 13, 2017

Amherst Fire Department website adds user friendly components and live audio feed -

August 11, 2017

UMass takes the cake for best campus dining -

August 11, 2017

Two UMass students overcome obstacles to win full-ride scholarships -

August 2, 2017

The guilt of saying ‘guilty’ -

August 2, 2017

UMass tuition set to rise 3-4 percent for 2017-2018 school year -

July 18, 2017

PVTA potential cuts affect UMass and five college students -

July 10, 2017

New director of student broadcast media at UMass this fall -

July 10, 2017

Whose American Dream? -

June 24, 2017

Man who threatened to bomb Coolidge Hall taken into ICE custody -

June 24, 2017

Cale Makar drafted by Colorado Avalanche in first round of 2017 NHL Entry Draft -

June 24, 2017

Conservatives: The Trump experiment is over -

June 17, 2017

UMass basketball lands transfer Kieran Hayward from LSU -

May 18, 2017

UMass basketball’s Donte Clark transferring to Coastal Carolina -

May 17, 2017

Report: Keon Clergeot transfers to UMass basketball program -

May 15, 2017

Despite title-game loss, Meg Colleran’s brilliance in circle was an incredible feat -

May 14, 2017

UMass softball loses in heartbreaker in A-10 title game -

May 14, 2017

Navy sinks UMass women’s lacrosse 23-11 in NCAA tournament second round, ending Minutewomen’s season -

May 14, 2017

UMass softball advances to A-10 Championship game -

May 13, 2017

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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