Last Saturday afternoon at the Vineyard Haven library, Alan Burt talked about his experience working with the homeless population of Cape Cod for the past 20 years. His book Blessings of the Burden was published last year, and during his talk it was evident how much this subject meant to him. As he read from his book and talked about the organization he helped found, Homeless Not Hopeless, he frequently had to stop to wipe tears from his eyes.

Mr. Burt is a Quaker and said his work with the homeless is his way of living Matthew 25 which contains the Biblical passage, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” On Dec. 13, he will spend the night sleeping outdoors with other advocates, in solidarity with the homeless, something he’s done for many years.

Mr. Burt’s talk began with a recent video news clip from San Jose, Calif., where a homeless encampment near Coyote Creek called “the jungle” that housed more than 200 people was being disassembled. The reporter interviewed one woman who had lived her whole life in the encampment. A fence would be installed and police would patrol the area frequently, the reporter said.

Mr. Burt's book Blessings of the Burden was published last year. — Alison L. Mead

“This has been happening across the country for the past 10 years,” Mr. Burt said. “Notice there’s no real sense of compassion in the story, it’s like they’re talking about the coyotes.”

Even though media reported that housing would be provided for the displaced, Mr. Burt said that even if it was provided it would undoubtedly not last. Within six months, it is likely that the people would be on the streets again.

“It now takes years to get a Section 8 housing certificate,” he said.

Mr. Burt said he had spent most of his adult life disconnected from the homeless. “Keep your head down, don’t talk to them,” he said. “You’re so afraid and into your own needs. Mental illness, poverty and addiction are too horrible to look at openly and honestly because that would hurt. We say they choose to be that way.”

There are three layers of fear that keep people from being compassionate toward the homeless, Mr. Burt explained.

“First, they are scary to look at and then we don’t want to get involved. Then number two, we begin to recognize that we are one pay check away and this could be me and that creates discomfort, and finally, the bottom layer of fear is biblical — am I my brother’s keeper? The answer to that question is a life-changing event.”

After years of purposely avoiding the Salvation Army homeless shelter in Hyannis, Mr. Burt saw a homeless man smile and wave at him on a street near the shelter. That day in 1993, for reasons he still doesn’t completely understand, Mr. Burt drove to the Salvation Army, went inside and asked how he could help.

He began spending a lot of time with the homeless and when a group of 20 or so were displaced and had no where to go, he made arrangements for them to stay at state parks. What he saw there was a sense of community. A woman with significant mental illness became the cook for the group, he said. “She became the cook and counselor, and I saw that because they had their own space, they developed roles and it occurred to me that if given space, they could take care of themselves.”

The Salvation Army shelter could not always accommodate the numbers of homeless, so Mr. Burt appealed to churches on the Cape and developed a hospitality outreach where he could take the homeless to different churches so that they could spend the night in a warm and safe environment. Eventually, though, the program ended because the local fire chiefs put restrictions on the churches, raising insurance and other costs so the churches could not afford to continue to help. He also said there was a motel on the Cape that rented inexpensive rooms to the homeless, but authorities made it impossible to continue that practice as well.

Eventually, a small group of homeless, along with some advocates, came together and founded Homeless Not Hopeless Inc., an organization that strives to serve as a community-based solution to homelessness. Now with four homes on Cape Cod, two rented and two that are owned by the nonprofit, Mr. Burt said the organization is working to provide affordable housing and support. At the houses, the homeless are self-directed and take care of each other, he explained. They cook and clean and with case managers and community connections, they can sometimes find employment or other resources previously unavailable to them. They pay minimal rent, and food is supplied through the food stamp program.

“Most homelessness is temporary, a week or a few days,” Mr. Burt said. “But then there are the chronic homeless. You get to know them and there is almost always a trauma. There was one guy who had been married for 20 years and his wife had died of a heart attack but he couldn’t cope with it. He was elderly, 75 years old and sleeping behind a dumpster. Another man had a wife with Alzheimer’s who had disappeared into the nursing home system and he could not survive with just his income.”

He described one of the men as a gentle spirit, like a grandfather to the younger homeless in the community.

“It’s difficult work,” he said. “It’s hard for people to see it’s the end result of someone’s toughest time. What happens when someone doesn’t have love and support? We get angry in the checkout line when it takes too long. Imagine how you’d feel if you were homeless.”

At the end of his talk, Mr. Burt took questions, and one woman asked if he knew homeless from the Vineyard. Mr. Burt said that homeless people coming from the Island sometimes make their way to Hyannis to the shelter.

“Because you’re homeless you become aware of where they [the shelters] are,” he said. “They show up, I don’t think they want to go off-Island, a shelter isn’t a good place to be. Our hope is why can’t you donate houses or motels instead of turning your head?”

He said his dream is that Homeless Not Hopeless will spread to other communities.

“We are not a program, we are a family,” he said.

More information about Homeless Not Hopeless Inc. is available at or by calling 508-957-2334.