It was hot and crowded in the church hall at The Sunday Friendship Breakfast on the morning of July 26, 2015, when I walked in with my camera. “The Breakfast” is a soup kitchen in Providence, Rhode Island, where hungry men and women can get a hearty meal, friendship and maybe a little spiritual inspiration from the Pastor on any given Sunday. It’s held in a large hall in the Mathewson United Methodist Church. Pastor Jack Jones presides. They do good works in the community. I noticed a bearded man sitting at the end of a crowded table with a little brown and white dog at his stockinged feet. The pup wore a coat that said "service dog." It seemed like this would make a good picture so I asked if I could take one or two shots of them. The man said "Sure." and scooped up his tiny pet and held him out to me. “Go ahead, take our picture. I'm Bobby and this is Snoopy.” This was how I first met Mr. Robert Medeiros.
It's always noisy at The Breakfast but after I did a few pictures we talked a little. I asked him about the dog. "He's a service dog so I can take him anywhere." Bobby said proudly. “I’ve had him for five years, since he was born. I picked him out because he was the runt of litter. He's been with me ever since."
Bobby and Snoopy are a couple. They sleep together, eat together and used to panhandle together. It's easy to see how much the man loves this animal. It’s a real love affair they have going. I once watched Bobby gather Snoopy up in his arms protectively when some guy showed up on the street with a mean looking Pit Bull off leash. Bobby told me the only time Snoopy ever got lost was when Bobby's son took him to the beach. The dog wandered away. Luckily, a lady found Snoopy and used his embedded chip to return him to a much relieved Bobby.
Bobby enjoys having his picture taken with his dog and I’ve made many pictures of them over the course of three years. Along the way we always talk and over many months, we have become friends. Like other folks that come to The Breakfast, he was eager to tell his story. Bobby had a family once. In his abbreviated way he explained, “I was married to Mary for twenty four years. Not really married, she was my common law wife. We had four kids, three boys and one girl.” He added, “My daughter had a brain tumor but she survived until she was twenty one.” He told me he and Mary eventually split up. “We just drifted apart.” I asked if he was close to his kids. He answered, “I see one of them, but not much.” He offered that he and his children rarely got together. “It was because of the drugs....” Like Bobby, many of the people who live on the street lose touch with their real families. Instead, they develop surrogate ones with other street people in the same living situation. So it’s not surprising that everyone at The Breakfast knows and loves Bobby and Snoopy. They are part of a certain Providence “family” that comes to The Breakfast.
Medeiros looks old beyond his years; he has been outdoors and homeless for a long time. His weathered face implies many disappointments along the way. There is a hint of despair in his eyes and exhaustion in his demeanor. He has a deep raspy voice with a heavy Rhode Island accent. The meager clothes, the long hair, and the full gray beard only add to an impression of a difficult life. He’s friendly, but at the same time a little cautious, perhaps trying to protect himself from hurt. Bobby is always willing to talk, speaking in short sentences. Early in any conversation his native intelligence becomes obvious. Little by little, Bobby and I have developed a rapport. He has openly shared the many ups and downs of his life with me, including his severe dyslexia. His early education never successfully managed this disability. The fact that Bobby can’t read or write is a major handicap that greatly saddens him.
Last summer Bobby and the dog showed up in an old beat up pickup truck. Wheels are rare at the breakfast because most of the folks that come must either walk, ride bikes or take a bus. Getting around isn’t easy. Few homeless people can afford automobiles. Medeiros admitted he didn’t have a driver’s license but at least the truck was insured and had a current inspection sticker. He shared that he and Snoopy were living out of the truck, sleeping in the back under a beat up green tarp, “Better than on the street.” he reasoned. Unfortunately, Bobby’s wheels disappeared from the Breakfast scene after a couple of months. “The truck just stopped running,” Bobby said. “It’s for sale! $800.”
In the spring of 2016, Bobby got a place to live. He and his dog finally had a real roof over their heads, thanks in part to the good people at Riverwood Mental Health Services. It was time for a celebration because having an apartment is a very big deal for a man who has lived under bridges or in doorways for so many years. Many single men like Bobby wait a long time for an apartment. Families get them first, single mothers with kids second, women third, and men usually last…. So I guess Bobby finally got lucky.
I took Bobby and Snoopy out to lunch. He suggested Iggys in Oaklawn Beach, apparently a hangout when Medieros was young. The three of us walked right in with the tiny dog in Bobby's arms. I expected objections from the waitress but my friend explained to her that Snoopy was a service dog. The meal turned out to be a good opportunity for us to talk. Between forkfuls of fish and chips and sips of Diet Coke, Bobby told me more of his story while Snoopy slept quietly under the table.
Medieros was removed from his mother as a small child. “She left me tied to a tree in the backyard when I was three years old so they took me away from her.” He rattled off the many group homes where he lived. He mentioned St. Mary's, St Aloysius, and the RI Training School all in one breath. There was no indication he ever lived with his parents when he was growing up. As a child he was passed from foster home to foster home. He remembers being locked in a closet under the stairs in one of them. Bobby told me a little about St. Aloysius. It was an elementary school for learning disabled and behaviorally disordered children. For youngsters like Bobby, it was merely a way-station. He said he had trouble there because he was dyslexic. “They tried to teach me to read using mirrors but it didn't work.” He admitted that although he can actually read numbers without much of a problem, he still can't read words, except maybe a street sign. He was embarrassed and apologetic when he told me this. I think he realizes his life could have been different if he hadn’t had this crippling disability.
About six months ago Bobby disappeared from The Breakfast scene. Everybody wondered, “Where’s Bobby, where’s Snoopy?” They were gone. That’s often the way it is at The Sunday Friendship Breakfast. People come, people go, never to be seen again, but Bobby was a regular and his absence was pretty unusual.
One of the volunteers explained that Bobby had stepped on a broken bottle while he was taking out the trash. He wasn’t wearing shoes. For a healthy man a minor cut on one’s foot isn’t a big deal but for a diabetic it can be serious business, and it was for Bobby. The wound became yet another battle in a life filled with them. Unfortunately, this was one that Medieros eventually lost. It was a good fight though. For months Bobby (and Snoopy) received treatment in a rehab center in Exeter, RI. When we visited Bobby he was upbeat. “Three good meals, and I can smoke out on the porch.” He showed us his wounded foot, encased in a plastic bag filled with an antibiotic wash. The medicines were supposed to kill off the infection but unfortunately, they didn’t work. Gangrene set in and Bobby’s lower leg had to be removed. He shrugged,“ It was the leg or my life.”
These days, Snoopy is “riding shotgun” on Bobby's motorized wheelchair. Medeiros seems resigned to this new situation. Now he is one of the many disabled folks that come to The Breakfast. He parks by the front door, sometimes with an extension cord running inside to charge the battery in his chair. Food must be brought out to him since the church steps are an impossible barrier. He’s thankful.
Those six steps in Medeiros’ nice Victorian apartment also became a barrier, one more problem in a life filled with them. He’d lock his wheelchair outside and crawl up the stairs to get into the apartment. He had scabs on his knees from going room to room on all fours. Medieros and his dog were eventually moved to a wheelchair friendly apartment complex in Warwick. Bobby is a fighter, has been all his life. He just picked up his prosthetic leg. He’s upbeat about this new challlenge, says he’s going to walk up those church steps someday. I predict he will do just that with Snoopy tagging close behind.
Bobby Medieros has been incredibly open, sharing his many challenges and allowing me to photograph him. I am grateful. After I read this piece to him he reminded me once again, “Jan, It wasn’t really the bad luck that I was homeless, it was the poor choices I made along the way.”
But in reality, it was more than poor choices on his part. Bobby’s story is similar to that of many other people who don’t have very much. Dysfunctional families, poor education, and few job opportunities all conspire against people like Medieros. Hope is hard to come by. This is why many men and women in the grip of alcohol and drugs find themselves homeless. Coupled with a high incidence of mental illnesses in this population, it is no wonder why so many people are sleeping on the streets of Providence, and on many other streets across America.