It was Easter Sunday, 2014, and Joan Bennett was driving through Rockland when she saw a young man holding a sign that read: “I just need enough money to buy a tent.”
Bennett approached the man, who introduced himself as Joey. He told her that he suffers from mental illness, lives in the woods and that his family had deserted him. While she couldn’t buy the tent, Bennett drove him to Home Depot and bought him a tarp. She also gave Joey her number in case he needed help getting to a shelter.
“He’s never used my number,” Bennett says. “I’ve texted him maybe a couple of times just to say, ‘are you OK?’ and hoping that one day he would say, ‘could you get me someplace.’ But he never did.”
Bennett says she has been helping people like Joey for nearly 30 years. She started in her 20s by simply buying coffee for homeless people she met on the street and slowly progressed to holding boot and clothing drives for the homeless through her group Communities Offer Practical Engagement or C.O.P.E. Though she’s based in Hingham, Bennett says she’s seen a dramatic increase in the homeless population across the region recently and travels to South Station several times a month to hand out clothing, blankets, hand-warmers and other necessities.
Though Joey never responded to her texts, he did help inspire her. She says she was driving through Weymouth with her sister when she saw Joey standing on the side of the road. She pulled over and discovered his feet were wet, infected and he was having trouble walking.
She brought him to Walmart and bought him socks and shoes. Her sister also gave him a backpack filled with blankets, an emergency radio and other items she got from her work with the Red Cross.
Bennett said Joey refused to take any money from her or her sister and wouldn’t accept a ride to the hospital to get his feet looked at.
Then, in October, the Long Island Shelter closed and displaced about 700 people. Bennett says she wanted to help and found herself thinking of Joey, the backpack her sister had given him and the “blessing bags” filled with items she had been distributing to the homeless. She just had to put it all together.
“How about if I combine backpacks and blessing bags?” Bennett thought. “The blessing bags were just put in baggies and the homeless carry everything that they own. Giving them this baggie was just very cumbersome to carry around.”
Bennett posted her idea on the Hingham Community Center Facebook page. She says she expected to get around 20 used backpacks from the post.
“Within an hour’s time, I had 100 responses,” Bennett says. “[In] maybe four days’ time, every school in the town was collecting backpacks. And suddenly, I had about 500 backpacks.”
Bennett says she worked with the Hingham Community Center to store the backpacks and provide a location where people could donate items such as blankets and socks and other items she would fill them with.
Bennett says she has distributed the backpacks to Boston Healthcare for the Homeless and people on the streets of Boston and in Hingham. Though not everyone takes the entire backpack, Bennett says she encourages people to take the items they need and pass the rest on to someone who needs them. Bennett says she’s heard that people have been leaving the bags on telephone poles with letters encouraging others to take what they need.
“It’s incredible,” Bennett notes.
The response Bennett received from her request for 20 used backpacks led her to make her own Facebook page. She has since built up a network of more than 500 people who help with clothing drives, distribution and simply getting the word out.
“That’s how C.O.P.E. started,” Bennett recalls.
Bennett says she is currently working on a boot drive and hopes to be able to distribute about 50 pairs of boots. One of the first recipients from C.O.P.E.’s efforts was a Spare Change News vendor, who needed a pair of size 13 boots.
Bennett said that while she would like to help more people, it all depends on how many donations she receives.
“We go out when we have enough to bring with us,” Bennett says. “Sometimes it’s enough to go out twice a week. Sometimes we can’t go out for two weeks.”
While she’s been able to help many people since she started C.O.P.E., Bennett says she still finds herself worrying about that young man she found standing on the side of the road.
“That experience with Joey just kind of stuck with me,” Bennett says. “And now I find myself driving around Weymouth hoping I get a glimpse of him to know he’s OK.”