The Kind Banker
Fred Robbins was in his late 70s, homeless, and ready to give up when he walked into Bank of America’s South Boston branch and caught the attention of Banking Center Manager, Valerie Ferry.
After spending more than a year getting to know him, reaching out to several organizations, and helping him fill out piles of paper work, Ferry was able to bring Robbins to his new apartment in Charlestown, August 1st.
Ferry said she met Robbins when he would come into the bank to withdraw money from his account and that every time she greeted him in the lobby and asked him how he was doing. It was never well.
“It started off just, ‘hi, how are you today?’ and he always just had a very sad look, and he never really had a good answer on how he was doing, he never said he was good unfortunately.”
While he never said he was doing well, Ferry said his appearance didn’t suggest that he was homeless.
“All of the times that I met him he’s always looked really great,” Ferry said. “He’s always had pressed pants, a Fedora Cap on, a nice polo. He wasn’t someone that you would ever think had a hardship in his life.”
Though it took several months, Robbins eventually opened up and told Ferry he was homeless and sleeping at Logan Airport.
“I would say that it took at least three months to uncover,” Ferry said. “Because people don’t always open up through those short interactions, but every time I would see him I would joke with him, I would try to make him smile, because, you know, it was almost kind of like a joke, you know, ‘oh here comes grumpy Fred, let’s see if we can get him to smile today’ you know, because you really don’t have any idea.
“It took him a couple of months to get him to feel comfortable enough to tell us what was wrong with him, but he eventually did and we immediately sat down, I asked him to come into my office, to tell me a little bit more about what had happened.”
Robbins said he had moved to Oregon with a friend, but that didn’t work out and he wound up in Florida and eventually in Boston. With nowhere to go, he wound up sleeping at the airport. He had been told to leave the airport several times, and wanted to find a place where ‘I won’t be told to get out.’
“My mouth gave me away so to speak, because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” Robbins said. “She discovered right off that I was homeless, and she has such a kind heart and such a kind disposition that I just had to go along with it, because she was trying to help me.”
Robbins has also had heart trouble and he experiences difficulty walking.
“I recently had a pacemaker installed in my heart,” Robbins said. “I think that’s attributable to the fact that I [sometimes] feel like I have ten pounds of steel [at the] bottom of each foot, and they feel like rubber sponges when I walk over them.”
After learning about his situation, Ferry looked into a shelter program she had done work with through Bank of America, but Robbins wasn’t eligible because he was outside of their service area. Ferry then reached out to her manager who put her in touch with the United Way, which, in turn, directed her to HomeStart, an organization dedicated to helping homeless individuals and families find housing. HomeStart helped Robbins get his apartment in Charlestown through the Boston Housing Authority.
“They took him on as a client and I took Fred to the appointments every other week to fill out applications, and to get them documentation, and to validate his status, his identity,” Ferry said. “I had to order a birth certificate for him, so yeah, it was a lot of time invested in him. It took over a year really for this to happen.”
According to Emory Lynch, Bilingual Housing Search Advocate for HomeStart, Robbins’ situation was unique.
“He was not living in a shelter, which most of our clients are - most of them are referred through their case managers, and they are living in shelters - so his was somewhat of a unique case in that respect.” Lynch said.
“And also because Valerie was such a good help: she was able to accompany him to a lot of his meetings and help in getting his documents together, so she really was also advocating for him, which, you know, unless someone has a family member or a case manager who can be really involved, usually there’s not someone helping a client out to get connected to us in the first place.”
Lynch added that she doesn’t know of any other clients who have had their Banking Center Manager help them find a home through HomeStart.
“As far as I know he’s our first,” Lynch said.
Robbins said that he likes his new home and that “it’s just my size.”
“It’s one bedroom, but the bedroom is quite large, and the living room is quite large, I have a nice little kitchen there,” Robbins said. “And it’s very nice it is. And it’s mine now.
“Everything’s alright with me now. I can come and go when I want to and nobody can tell me to get out.”
While he enjoys being in his new apartment, he still makes sure to visit Ferry at Bank of America on a regular basis.
“Since the apartment, Fred still comes to see me at the bank pretty regularly,” Ferry said. “I’ll see him at least a couple of times a week.”