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Billy, The Homeless Chess Master


William Collins has played chess with me for over twenty years. When the weather is warm, we meet at the stone chess tables in Harvard Square, shaded by the trees in front of Au Bon Pain. I’m pretty good, expert level. He’s way better.

Billy has been homeless since 1997. It never occurred to me to try to help any more than giving him an occasional ten or twenty dollar bill. Until recently. He always seemed so self-sufficient. What could I do?

This past fall I talked with Billy about why he was unable to get off the streets. I learned numerous attempts had met with failure, strangled by red tape and false promises. Most homeless people transition back to housing through a shelter, but Billy suffered a level of abuse while in shelters years ago that made him swear to never stay in one again. So now, when he can afford it, he shells out $10 a night to sleep on a porch (with no heat , electricity, nor access to a bathroom).

My wife, Sakina, and I offered to help Billy find housing. The goal was to do so by December 2014. We met several times with Housing First and Social Security, and they were able to get him to qualify for a $5000 emergency grant. Clown Shoes Beer was prepared to match the grant. Promising, right? All we needed was a room.

Billy had an opportunity to view a space that he would be able to move into twice. The first time he made it to the viewing early, but the landlord had a heart attack just before his arrival. No joke. He watched as the ambulance pulled out , flipped on the lights and hit the siren. The second time, about a month later, he got called two hours prior to a viewing. Billy was in Harvard Square, and the call came while a rally protesting Ferguson and police brutality was going down. The mass of humanity was so dense he couldn’t make his way through to the subway. Without money for a cab, there was no possible way to attend the showing.

Since these two unfortunate attempts, no more rooms have been offered for Billy to see. He survived the worst winter of his lifetime and is now in debt to the guy who lets him sleep on the porch.

Clown Shoes Beer still has five thousand dollars dedicated to pay rent for Billy, as well as to help get him get set up in a place. The plan, once that happens, is for Billy to take a job. He is willing to do anything from dish washing to janitorial work. Beyond that, we are going to build a website to promote Billy as a chess teacher and to help him find students. The barrier keeping him from these objectives is the homelessness. It’s nearly impossible to hold a menial job, let alone be a teacher, if you do not have a place to wash, receive mail, and to rest.

The people at Housing First are good people. They want to help, and maybe eventually things will come together if we wait. Unfortunately, given the brutality of the winter and the closing of the Long Island Shelter in Quincy, their work load has been epic. And Billy is outside of the shelter system, where first priority is focused.

Not to state the obvious, but most folks living on the streets are messed up every which way, in terms of their situation as well as their physical and mental well-being. Billy helps those less fortunate than himself. I’ve watched him share his food, money, and time, even though he has so little of each to spare. About a year ago, he told me helping these people was the main thing keeping him going.

William Collins has a great deal to offer the world. At 60, Billy is still strong physically, though his sciatic nerve flares up every now and then.   Mentally, he is likely to be a genius (though I wouldn’t say that to him, as he already has a big enough head from kicking so much butt at chess!). Billy is a natural gentleman, he is very funny, and he possesses a depth of character you rarely see. This is not a man who should be left to die on the streets or on some guy’s porch.

Assisting Billy was meant to be private. We aren’t looking for publicity for Clown Shoes Beer and we aren’t looking to raise funds. We are looking for someone with a room who will give him a lease and a chance in life.

Does anyone have a suggestion or an idea that will help?

(To those who made it this far, thank you for taking the time to ready this heavy and very non beer related blog post.)

Gregg Berman


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