By Philip Graham
Bobby Medeiros sits on a wheelchair with his service dog, Snoopy, on his lap. Behind him stands an imposing three-story building. Its two full porches, decorated with filigreed railings, face a wide and well-tended lawn. Once a headquarters in the 19th century for organizing state fairs, this Warwick mansion is now known as House of Hope, having been converted in 2017 into housing for the homeless.
The years have not been kind to Bobby, and perhaps, for this reason, he insists we take a photo here, to show where he was managed to land after so much trouble.
Bobby and I return to his one bedroom apartment on the first floor, located just off the parking lot on the side of the House of Hope, and he tells me, “I have no baby pictures of me, I was an orphan.”
When I ask about his parents, he says, “My father was a truck driver, always out of state, my mother was downtown all the time casing the sailors. I was left alone, and when the neighbors discovered me tied up in the backyard like a dog with a bowl of water… that’s when I got taken away.”
What followed was a succession of group homes, like the Children’s Center, Saint Mary’s, Saint Aloysius. “I go down the whole list,” he says. He also entered the Foster Care program, but the foster parents would misuse the monthly checks they received for his care. “They would buy clothes for their own children with the support money, and give me the old hand-me-downs.”
Bobby has few good memories of those years, though he does recall with affection the house manager of Children’s Center, Mrs. Anderson. “When I was three years old, she was closest to a mother to me.”
Perhaps his worst memory is when he refused to brush his teeth, in one of the many group homes he has passed through. “All us kids had their own brushes, with their names on them, but mine was in poor condition, I didn’t want to use it.” One of the managers took a small wire brush used to clean pans in the kitchen and brushed Bobby’s teeth with it, lacerating his gums. Then the man threw him across the hall, giving him a concussion.
At that time, a couple had gotten to know him through the Big Brother program and wanted to adopt him. But his biological father refused to agree and stopped their visits. He was suing the group home where Bobby had been abused and didn’t want to lose his legal status as a parent before the claim was decided. When a settlement finally came through, none of it made its way to Bobby.
“The closest family I got was the family I made. My four kids and my wife Mary, and my wife’s family became my family.” He also raised a younger brother, Ricky, as a son. “He calls me Dad,” Bobby says with quiet pride.
This was a time of stability in his life. He owned a house and co-owned a demo and trucking company in Providence.” Yet undermining it all was increasing alcohol and drug use, and in 2000 Bobby lost his business when he and his wife separated—after over 20 years of common law marriage. “I had a nervous breakdown, I couldn’t handle it too well,” he murmurs. And so began Bobby’s seventeen years of life on the street, and repeated trouble with the law.
“I’ve been in and out of jail so many times, all penny ante stuff, but once you have a record, in you go again. 30 days, 90 days at a time. And when you get out of jail, you don’t have nothing, you’re back to where you were.”
Finally, after being released from prison yet one more time, Bobby, who had always been something of a survivalist, decided he needed to settle down in a place far from anyone else. He chose the forest in the grounds of a large state-owned reservoir, and between 2011 and 2012 he built a secret compound where he might be able to clean himself up and keep off drugs. “With nobody around, I knew I could survive.”
He dug two holes in the earth and lined them with scavenged plastic sheets and pallets so they wouldn’t cave in. One hole became his living quarters. For a roof, he spread dirt over plywood until it looked like a square area of earth. Then he built a pulley system so he could open and close the disguised roof “like a flip cover.” Finally, he waterproofed the edges of the roof with slit tire tubes. Inside, over time he added a workbench, a bed, a battery and an alternator for electricity, even a small TV. He collected a set of plastic buckets, which he says made for “good seats, good washing, and a good bathroom.”
The second hole Bobby dug was a root cellar where he kept his crops: zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash. He snared rabbits and turkeys in traps, fished for catfish and bass, and with a bow and arrow once shot a small deer. In a cinderblock oven, he controlled smokeless fires, so that any guard in the reservoir’s ranger tower wouldn’t see smoke and report that a forest fire had sparked. He collected a supply of used cooking oil from midnight expeditions to a nearby pizza restaurant. One of Bobby’s favorite meals was rabbit and veggie stew, and he shakes his head ruefully now and says, “I was eating better then than I’m eating now.”
He salted his meat and cached some of his food in trees. Occasionally he’d encounter a bear, “but all you have to do is mind your own business,” he says. Bobby also had a heater in the winter, for those times when the snow turned to ice and he couldn’t open his trap door. “Sometimes you get snowbound,” he observes as if this were the simplest problem in the world.
Bobby also hid a system of dangling beer and soda cans that could rattle and warn him of anyone’s approach. Unfortunately, Bobby was caught by his own warning system, because one day the sound of these cans tipped off a Department of Environmental Management employee who was walking nearby.
Soon enough, a team of police and the DEM returned, “with guns blazing,” because they thought he must have been growing marijuana on the reservoir grounds. They wanted to know where he kept his “crops.” When he showed them his root cellar, and the rest of his compound, they were so impressed that they didn’t press charges, providing that he agree not to reveal where he had lived.
Then Bobby was dropped off in downtown Providence, hooked up with food stamps, and his life on the streets began again, as well as a deeper plunge into alcohol. He woke up drunk one morning in a junkyard and discovered that a spider had bitten him—a bite that eventually cost him the tip of one of his fingers. One winter night in a rail yard he fell asleep and his toes stuck to a railroad tie. Blackened from frostbite, they had to be removed. After recovering in a rehab center, Bobby decided he needed a companion dog.
He picked Snoopy because he was the runt of the litter, and a little strange looking, with a small head, tall legs, and a thick body. “I like underdogs,” he remarks, remembering how he had to feed Snoopy with a bottle. The last time Bobby had been in prison, he’d participated in the NEED program, where he learned to train dogs. So Bobby trained Snoopy to be a seizure dog. If ever Bobby would begin to pass out from drinking and be in danger of a seizure, Snoopy could run to get help.
Snoopy couldn’t protect him in every way, however. One day in 2015, while returning downtown from a clinic, two men stopped him and asked for a light, while another man walked up behind Bobby and stabbed him three times. “He took my book bag but left the knife in me.” Bobby pulled the knife out of his side and stabbed his attacker who, later in the hospital, developed an infection from the wound. “Unfortunately he passed away,” Bobby says quietly, with typical empathy.
This attack and its consequences seem to have been a turning point for Bobby. Though he slept in Burnside Park overnight, he was allowed to do so because in the early mornings he cleaned up the park, collecting and disposing of the accumulated trash. And even though he had been drinking since he was a kid, and he didn’t care for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Bobby—ever the survivalist—knew he could stop drinking on his own. “I tried my best to control myself. I knew I got plenty of willpower to do this. Someone told me, ‘Everybody falls off the wagon sometime.’ Well, “I’m not everybody. I’m me. Now I can watch people drinking and can walk away.”
Bobby started going to churches, and then, ever independent, decided to do his own outreach. He used his food stamps to buy slices of pizza for others, and he kept ice in a cooler, so he could pass out cold water bottles in the summer.
“At Christmas time, I would buy a couple of one dollar boxes of Christmas cards, and my daughter helped me write a message thanking the people who gave me money.” But if he didn’t receive money, that was all right with Bobby too. “All I asked was for someone to acknowledge me and say hi. Saying hi costs nothing. It’s not all about dollar and cents. If you say hi to me that’s precious enough, that’s very valuable.”
One year Bobby bought $40 worth of lottery tickets and slipped them into the Christmas cards. Some people actually won money and a man who won $88 came back the next day to give Bobby half. Bobby also began giving lottery tickets to other homeless people. “Even if someone only won $10, he’d find me and say, ‘I really needed that money, thank you.’”
Bobby sits back in his wheelchair, remembering those times. “I was just paying back. That’s the important thing, giving back.”
Word eventually got out about Bobby and Snoopy, including a few news reports, and people from across Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts would drop by Kennedy Plaza to give him gifts of food and clothes. “It got to the point that I didn’t need a sign anymore.”
Last year, Bobby lost part of his right leg to diabetes, a result of his years of drinking. He needed to change his life again. “I simply asked people who wanted to give me money to call social services instead and ask why Bobby and Snoopy didn’t have a safe place to live.” Rhode Island Housing was bombarded with calls. After a few false starts, Meghan Smith, an outreach worker, found him an apartment at the newly renovated House of Hope in Warwick.
“You might say,” Bobby laughs, “I went from living in the bush to living in a mansion.”
As if honoring his days of living at the reservoir, Bobby has started a garden along one side of the mansion, where he grows tomatoes, carrots, jalapeños, pumpkins, and more. After receiving a grant from Rhode Island, and with the approval of the neighbors in the surrounding homes, Bobby will expand the garden next year.
Three of his neighbors across the street have paid off the balance of his bills for his wheelchair. A nearby church donates cans of lemonade that contains DBC, the calming ingredient in cannabis. “It doesn’t get you high,” Bobby says, “it takes some of the pain away in my legs.”
Safely settled in House of Hope, Bobby sometimes visits his ex-wife, who lives nearby. “We stayed on good terms, we have grandkids together.” Bobby often takes his granddaughter fishing. “She loves to fish,” he says, and then he pauses as if especially enjoying the memory of those outings. Beside him, Snoopy scrounges in a bag filled with dog treats. The air conditioner in the window is running, keeping the apartment cool. A daytime talk show plays silently on the television. In a few days, his right leg will be fitted for a prosthetic shoe. Against all odds, Bobby Medeiros has finally found a patch of peace.
Bobby and Snoopy.
Photo by Philip Graham