A Woodstock filmmaker hopes his new documentary will shed light on the town’s homeless and how the COVID-19 pandemic made a virtually invisible segment of the population lose what little help they could get.
In the documentary Homeless in Woodstock, Last Night in The Van, Chris Finlay explores the primary causes of homelessness and how the system let them down. A special screening with a Q&A session will be held Sunday, June 19 at 7 p.m. at Tinker Street Cinema, 132 Tinker Street in Woodstock.
“I traveled across America four times by train. On one of my trips, I stopped off at San Francisco and I was fascinated by this homeless person. Because it’s a totally different type of homeless person you have here in America,” said Finlay, who grew up in Ireland. “She was a school teacher and she got sick. She spent all her money on medical bills, and she was on the street begging…I said, really? You’re homeless? And she said yeah. That was totally alien to me coming from Ireland, where we have a pretty good medical system. No system is perfect, but it’s pretty good, and you’d never find a situation where a school teacher would become homeless for spending all their money on medical bills…”
Fast-forward about 20 years and Finlay is living in Woodstock, where he meets many of the town’s homeless population. He said he has always been interested in social issues. His first film, The Fisherman, the Artist and the Filmmaker, was about salmon fishermen in his hometown of Drogheda, about 30 miles north of Dublin, Ireland.
Families who had been fishing for generations were asked to stop in order to save the salmon. They were compensated by the government but had to adapt to a new life. It is available through his Facebook page.
“I got along well with all these people, because I think it’s just part of my working-class Irish background. We never had a lot of money. So I always got along well with that kind of people,” Finlay said. “Deep down in some way I had a fear of becoming homeless too, so I was interested in not going there, too.”
Five years ago, Finlay went through some personal crises and got to know Family of Woodstock.
“You could go in there, sit there and talk,” he said of the Rock City Road location’s front room. “And that’s where I met Perry.”
COVID shuts down community lifeline
Perry, who was living in a van behind Family, would become a subject in the documentary.
“And then COVID came along, so Family of Woodstock closed. I knew there was going to be a major problem for the homeless community who go in there and sometimes spend hours there,” Finlay said. “If it’s cold, they get some heat there, and if it’s too hot, you sit in the air conditioning, and Perry was disabled. He had great difficulty walking. So now he [couldn’t] go there anymore.”
Thus, Perry was confined to his broken-down van, parked in the back of Family. Finlay was increasing concerned for Perry and the other homeless who now had no place to go.
“So I called and I spoke to a person at the town and I told him that look, Family has just closed down. Where are the homeless going to go for tender-loving care? There’s nothing they could do either, so I knew they were going to be very vulnerable.” Finlay began bringing hot meals to Perry in his van. After about a year, Finlay was able to gain Perry’s trust and interviewed him for the documentary.
Early in the pandemic, the town and county had programs where volunteers would bring hot meals from local restaurants to residents who didn’t have transportation or the ability to cook. “But if you didn’t have an address, you didn’t get a hot meal and the soup kitchens closed down too,” Finlay said. “There were all these places where the homeless people found solace in an already difficult situation. It was taken away from them. No bathrooms. No soup kitchens. Because of the social distancing, people were hesitant to even speak to them…I’m not trying to blame anybody, but an already difficult situation as a society that America is for homelessness became the perfect storm for the homeless people.”
Two years ago, in January 2020, Woodstock Police teamed up with Supervisor Bill McKenna, Councilman Reggie Earls and officials from the housing agency RUPCO to conduct a homeless census and to provide outreach. It was deemed a success and plans began to follow up with another census in the warmer months. But two months later, COVID came and those plans never materialized.
Three of Woodstock’s homeless die during pandemic
During the time of COVID and reduced services, three of Woodstock’s homeless died. While they did not die from COVID, Finlay thinks lack of support contributed to their demise.
Zachary Smith died suddenly on August 2, 2020 at age 28.
Geoffrey Paturel, also known as Jesus Geoff, died in September 2020 after being dragged by a UPS truck on Main Street in New Paltz and dislodged near the Wallkill River. He had climbed under the truck for an unknown reason.
Donald “Puppy John” Hanson, died in July 2020. A regular fixture on the Village Green, Puppy John was eventually given an apartment in Ellenville, but Finlay thinks the isolation from his friends, peers and services was not good for him. “Puppy John came back. I saw him once when he was walking around town, but then he couldn’t go into Family,” he said. “I can’t say directly that all three died of because the COVID lockdown, but I believe they did. Because it’s very unusual to lose three people like that, in such a short space of time.”
Paturel often had difficulty finding a place to sleep and COVID turned that into a disaster, Finlay said.
He was sometimes seen at 3 a.m., wandering around town and one night, he was badly beaten and found barely conscious in a Woodstock parking lot. After being treated at Westchester Medical Center, he never came back. Eventually he was killed in the tragic accident in New Paltz.
Family of Woodstock was solace for Geoffrey, who would go there when recovering from his drinking binges, but he lost that option during the COVID lockdown.
Zach eventually left town, ending up in Kingston, where Finlay believes he died of an overdose.
Meanwhile, Finlay continued to bring Perry hot meals, coffee and cocoa, sometimes watching a movie together until the wee hours of the morning with a portable DVD player Finlay would bring to the van.
“It was friendship. It really was and I needed him as much as he needed me,” Finlay said.
As explained in the documentary, Perry’s fortunes turned around, but many aren’t so lucky. Finlay ran through a list of people who need roofs over their heads. There’s Richard Mellon who lives in back of Family. Peter from Denmark was taking care of an elderly woman and her property. When she died, he was kicked out on the streets and homeless for the first time at age 62.
Richard wants a place but doesn’t want to leave Woodstock, which is true among many of the homeless, who don’t want to be uprooted from what little support system they have here.
“He wants a place and there should be a place for him Woodstock. He doesn’t want to live in Kingston, and that’s kind of like the same for most of the homeless,” Finlay said.
Different attitude about homeless
“What I’m doing with my documentary is I want the public here to meet these people and to see them, because there’s what I see as a cognitive dissonance with the homeless here in America.”
About a year ago, there was one homeless person in Drogheda, Finlay’s hometown of about 40,000 people. “A bunch of the town council went down and he was sleeping in a shop window and they wanted to know why he was sleeping outdoors. Why was he homeless,” Finlay recalled. “He told them that he suffered from paranoia and he wanted to be left alone, so they left him alone…These were the representatives of the town that went and they talked to one person.”
By contrast, Finlay said, homeless in America are invisible.
“Something should be done to help them. Everybody passes the buck on to the county. ‘It’s the county’s job.’ I don’t see it that way,’ Finlay said. “If you’re homeless here, you’ve got to sleep in a hallway next door to the police station, and sometimes you’re told you’ve got to go in and get the keys from the police. What homeless person is going to do that?”
To find out more about Perry’s status and others in the homeless community, watch Homeless in Woodstock, Last Night in the Van, at 7 p.m. Sunday, June 19 at Tinker Street Cinema. Finlay will be available for a Q&A session after the screening. The suggested donation is $10 and all proceeds will go to Family of Woodstock’s efforts to help the homeless.