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Cleaning a stigma: Woman rallies homeless to bag trash for cash

  • Sarah Heineke (right) and Amy Campbell sit along an area where they’ve been encouraging Concord’s homeless to pick up trash for cash. Maddie Vanderpool photos / Monitor staff

  • Amy Campbell stops beside a pile of trash gathered beneath the Interstate 393 bridge in Concord last week. Maddie Vanderpool / Monitor staff

  • Trash is seen scattered beneath the Interstate 393 bridge in Concord last week. Sarah Heineke has been rallying the city’s homeless to pick up garbage in exchange for cash.



Monitor columnist
Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Watch and listen to Sarah Heineke operate within the homeless community, a place she’s quite familiar.

You’ll hear her speak like an English professor, with no pauses, just smooth thought. You’ll see her coordinate a project like a master planner. You’ll feel her leadership skills, attracting others in and around the Friendly Kitchen to seek her out and draw strength from her.

Then you’ll learn a little about her background, and it starts to make sense. She was homeless for two years, before securing subsidized housing at the Pitman Building two weeks ago. And her father and mother are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, her grandfather and grandmother at West Point Academy.

She wasn’t close to her dad or grandfather, but if ever there was an example of DNA shaping someone, this is it.

The life mixture means an individual with the perfect blend to lead people into battle, in this case a fight for respect and dignity, as Heineke has rallied homeless troops to bag garbage for cash. She’s used her own money and collected donations to pay workers $2 per bag.

Six people showed up the first time, producing 33 bags of garbage, in what Heineke said was a 105 degree heat index. Ten more came for the second session, last Sunday, and that translated into 44 bags.

The battlefield thus far has been the secluded areas under the Interstate 393 bridge and the railroad corridor south of the bridge to Storrs Street. Other areas will be targeted later in the program.

“There’s a general stigma attached to homelessness,” Heineke told me at lunch recently at the Kitchen. “You’re a drunk or a druggie or you have no job. This instills a sense of pride and accountability.”

As we sat at a back table, several homeless people, none of whom would give their name, listened in, fully aware of Heineke’s morale-building personality. A woman said people naturally gravitate to her, feeling a sense of strength. The woman’s daughter said, “Amazing. I love her.”

Heineke shied away from the term “leader,” saying, “I just set things up.”

She wore a black T-shirt with the word “Agitator” emblazoned in white letters across her chest. It was a gift, a symbol of who she is. As Heineke says, “I’m a don’t-tell-me-what-to-do kind of girl.”

She wore a buzz cut on the sides of her head and a short tail on top, coiled into a bun. She had an all-black Johnny Cash look, like Cash, she showed a rebellious spirit, and like Cash, she never revealed a trace of anger during our conversations.

But inside, the wheels were turning, the passions burning. She says her dad raised her to be a constitutionalist, and she once brought a battery-less megaphone into the State House, calling it a visual prop to show support for gun rights and Amendment 2A of the New Hampshire Constitution.

“Don’t worry,” she says she told security. “It’s not loaded.”

She has a civil rights lawsuit pending against the McKenna House, claiming the shelter forced her to take a breathalyzer without cause.

Now, she’s leading the charge to clean up areas where the city’s homeless stay while lawmakers try to figure out how to solve the homeless problem.

It’s a lifestyle she knows well, after the welt-leaving beatings dished out by her late father, Lt. Col. Richard Heineke, whose chest was filled with medals for his service after World War II and during the wars in both Korea and Vietnam.

Heineke says that led to post traumatic stress disorder, which has caused uncontrollable emotional breakdowns in her life, costing her jobs as a media producer and a dispatcher.

“Sometimes I can’t finish a sentence,” she told me.

That wasn’t the case when we spoke. Heineke moved here from Keene two years ago after a gun was pulled on her by a free stater, and she remained homeless for 368 days, living in shelters most of the time.

During that time, though, her thirst for knowledge poked through when she enrolled in Granite Leaders, a program sponsored by the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, to “research solutions on ending homelessness, educate providers on best practices, and empower people to advocate on behalf of the homeless,” according to the group’s website.

Heineke received $100 as a graduation gift, then saw a woman named Amy Campbell, homeless for nearly two years, bagging trash under the I-393 bridge, where garbage and clothing and lots of disgusting things had been piling up forever, giving the homeless a black eye and feeding into old stereotypes.

Campbell said her initial cleanup effort, done with a close friend for no other reason than to make things look better, took 20 hours to bring under control. She stood under the bridge recently, where the colorful graffiti jumped off the walls. There were only two trash bags in sight, and only some scattered bottles and clothing remained.

“It took a lot of raking,” Campbell told me. “A lot of trash, glass, cans, clothing, used tampons. We took 50 bags out of here that first time.”

Heineke noticed. A light went off in that well-lit mind of hers. On a TED Talk, she had heard Albuquerque, N.M., Mayor Richard Berry explain what he was doing about homelessness, that he was putting panhandlers to work, instilling pride, providing a sense of purpose, putting a few bucks in their pockets.

She did her homework, discovering that Concord would pick up bags of trash, provided by General Services free of charge, at designated areas. She spread the word, offering $2 a bag, using her $100 graduation money to fit the bill. Then she did it again, this time raising the money online, another $100, which is the minimum she seeks to remain as the glue for the project. She’s already got $50 for the next work session.

“She rallies other people to clean things up,” Tricia Foisey, director of the Friendly Kitchen, told me during the lunch hour. “She’s an effective leader, and she’s very kind.”

Andy Labrie, who recently retired as the outreach coordinator for the Community Action Program, remains a giant figure in the homeless community. He met with Heineke last week and vouched for her, saying she’s a unique individual with great vision and heart. He told me Heineke completed CAP’s First Start program, adding to her rich qualifications as an advocate.

“She’s working really hard at the trash pickup,” Labrie said. “She’s trying to motivate people to clean up messes and get stuff done. I wish there was a way to get her some funding so she can keep doing it.”

Forget tax money. Heineke wants no part of that. She wants donations, private funding. If a huge metropolitan area like Albuquerque, with a population more than 10 times that of Concord, can make progress, why not here?

Meanwhile, she’s living at the Pitman Building, her first real home in more than two years. She’s on disability. She sees herself working again, somewhere, perhaps, at a 9-to-5 job, and here, under bridges and along railroad tracks, on the final Sunday of each month.

“I’m still involved with the homeless community,” Heineke said. “I’m not going anywhere.”