Monday, April 6, 2015
“Give Me a Shot of Anything: House Calls to the Homeless”
I find these video clips to be riveting. What do you think?
Night Time House Calls
The Film Maker
Boston Health Care for the Homeless
Monday, April 6, 2015
“Give Me a Shot of Anything: House Calls to the Homeless”
I find these video clips to be riveting. What do you think?
Night Time House Calls
The Film Maker
Boston Health Care for the Homeless
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
The Video: Death on Skid Row
I have just watched the video of a homeless, mentally ill man being shot to death by Los Angeles police. Regardless of what the investigation about this death reveals as to cause and fault, this is one of the saddest, most terrifying pieces of film I’ve ever seen. People, we gotta’ change some things.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Lent: I’m Not Much, But I’m All I Think About
This evening I sat in the beautiful Church of the Incarnation and listened to a wise, direct, and very profound sermon by our rector, Bishop Anthony Burton, on preparing for Lent.
In speaking of the temptations that Christ experienced during his forty days in the wilderness — which we symbolically replicate through our observance and celebration of the Lenten season — Bishop Burton clarified them in a way I hadn’t previously understood: Christ, he said, was tempted to become the star of his own show — the centerpiece of his own movie. He refused.
As I sat through the service, surrounded by the majesty of a church I’ve loved for decades, I observed how often my thoughts are centered upon myself. Briefly, I can be fully present within the momentous mystery and magic of what is going on around me, but quickly and automatically, I am back to… assessing myself, critiquing myself, speculating about myself… which then turns in an equally automatic way to quick and sometimes even scornful and petty judgments of people around me.
To quote a friend who has spent decades successfully working twelve-step programs, “I’m not much, but I’m all I think about.”
Referring to the unremitting humility of Jesus and of His unwillingness to become a person of consequence and importance — or, perhaps in today’s parlance, one could say His unwillingness to become “relevant”, the bishop said, “I want that.”
So do I.
Church of the Incarnation incarnation.org
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Bored & Brilliant
Those who know me even a little know I’m a fan of unplugging from technology — mild understate. I’ve gone so far as to ban electronics for a week on family beach vacations… if I felt I could get by with it. Slightly autocratic I admit, but the results in calmer grandchildren who let their creativity shine amidst this “boredom” and wonderful conversations between adults — not to mention just gazing out at the scenery as opposed to down at the electronic device — was impressive. Of course, this does not mean that one can’t be creative with and through technology. Still… Needless to say, I was interested to hear this interview on the BBC World Service.
Slight conundrum: participating in this project of unplugging from technology requires an “App”! (It’s only in the last couple of years that I figured out what that word even means.) And this project comes through a website called “New Tech City.” But even a luddite was impressed with and intrigued by this interview. Also, yes, I am aware that, once again, I am putting this “out there” on a computer through WIFI.
Saturday, November 29, 2014
On Boston Streets: A Night on the Pine Street Inn Outreach Van
by Karen Shafer
I had the privilege last month to ride along on the overnight Outreach Van for Pine Street Inn, the largest homeless shelter in New England. On the van that night were a physician, Dr. James O’Connell, founder and President of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and three Pine Street outreach workers.
The van goes out 365 days a year into the city of Boston to minister to those men and women who live on the street and who are either unable or unwilling to enter the shelter system on any particular night. It carries food — soup, oatmeal, sandwiches, hot chocolate and bottled water —as well as blankets, coats, hats, gloves, underwear and socks. The workers track each person’s progress and monitor their health conditions and concerns. In an emergency, an individual can be transported into a shelter. Perhaps the most important component of what the staff provides is personal contact and compassion. And they are friends to those who often don’t have many.
The dedicated Pine Street staff, along with medical personnel from BHCHP on some nights, know by name most of the people “sleeping rough”, as well as their personal stories. These service providers are so respectful of the privacy of each individual that if, on previous nights, the person has requested not to be awakened to receive the van’s services, they do not disturb them if they are sleeping. On this particular night, the temperature was in the forties — chilly, but not life-and-limb threatening. All of the “regulars” — generally referred to as the “chronically homeless” — know the van staff well, and Dr. O’Connell, whom they call Jim, has in fact been friends to many of them for as long as thirty years. It was a tremendous privilege to to follow Dr. O’Connell out onto the street as he approached each person, to have the opportunity to be introduced to them, and then to be trusted enough through the currency of his and Pine Street’s long-standing relationships with them to hear some of their stories.
There were people sleeping out who were struggling with serious head trauma, with mental illness, with chronic and acute health conditions, with addiction. One of the people I remember most clearly and felt particularly drawn to was “Sam,” lying on a cold sidewalk, his wheelchair nearby and his girlfriend on hand to look out for him. After many years on the street, last year he became afflicted by a permanent disability due to frostbite, but he still doesn’t want to go indoors.
On this night, he was dozing under the awning of a business with a security light shining overhead. Dr. O’Connell first greeted him, checked on his condition, then returned to the van to secure a blanket and food. I asked Sam if he could sleep with the brightness of the light overhead. “Not really,” he said, “I wish I could shoot it out.” “I’ll go back to the van and get my pea shooter and see if I can take it out for you,” I joked with him, and despite his evident discomfort, he smiled. The radiance of his personality shone through even the bleakness of his situation. He was so weak that, when Dr. O’Connell brought him hot soup and a sandwich, he couldn’t sit up to eat them, so the doctor leaned in close, unwrapped the sandwich, and put it in his hand.
I was surprised by the tolerant and even supportive attitude that some downtown Boston businesses have towards their homeless brothers and sisters. At one of the van’s stops, there were freshly built cardboard shelters in which people were sleeping under the overhang in front of a mattress store. Astonished that people were allowed by the city to sleep in this location, I was even more amazed when the Pine Street outreach workers informed me that the business owner or other nearby citizens bring fresh boxes each night which the people use to build their shelters in the business doorway. In the morning, a city recycling truck comes to pick them up. If criminalization of the homeless is a part of street life in the city, I didn’t observe it. This is The Boston Heart.
There are federal laws regulating the circumstances under which people can be involuntarily committed to care, and Massachusetts interprets those laws with an emphasis on personal liberty and respect for individual rights. I count this as a very good thing, but sometimes it makes it particularly challenging for medical personnel and service providers to deliver the kind of care people “sleeping rough” need most — when that care involves being inside an institution. Often, individuals will agree to be hospitalized long enough to deal with an acute health challenge, but will return to the street when the crisis has passed.
This is where Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program sets the standard nationally and internationally for the delivery of medical and support services to the homeless and those living in poverty. The staff of more than three hundred physicians, dentists, nurses, social workers, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, psychiatrists, mental health counselors, case managers, dental hygienists, administrative staff, building maintenance, and food service workers brings health care to those who would not otherwise be able to access it — to the street, to domestic violence and emergency shelters, to hospital walk-in clinics, to temporary and permanent supportive housing units, and in their own respite care facility, Barbara McInnis House. Their doctors are on the teaching faculty of Harvard University, Boston University and Tufts Medical Schools. It is an extraordinary system and one that is well-coordinated with other service providers throughout the City of Boston and surrounding areas.
Monthly, a group of service providers in Boston — BHCHP medical staff, shelter directors and case workers, police, and others who interface with those living on the street — meet to assess the specific needs of around a hundred homeless individuals needing particular attention, and coordinate their plans on how to help them. Equally impressive is the fact that at any point in time, Dr. O’Connell and his medical staff can access by email the number of their patients who are in the city’s emergency rooms or have been admitted to its hospitals.
As I rode along with the Pine Street van and observed first hand the functioning of a respectful, organized, efficient system of registering patients and delivering to them direct care on the street — seamlessly carried out in a milieu of kindness, love, generosity and respect — I was in awe. It is a model of compassion, service and cooperation to which every city should aspire.
Boston Health Care For the Homeless Program: http://www.bhchp.org To request a copy of BHCHP’s newsletter or be added to their mailing list, please contact Carrie Eldridge-Dickson at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Pine Street Inn: http://www.pinestreetinn.org
Boston Globe: https://theintermittentvolunteer.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/why-some-bostonians-refuse-shelter-in-the-dead-of-winter-and-how-they-survive/
From the Boston Globe: listen to the story here…
Why Some Bostonians Refuse Shelter In The Dead Of Winter, And How They Survive
A van crawls through the streets of downtown Boston, pausing at the intricate iron entrance to a city landmark or a doorway carved in stone. By day, these openings are passages to power and wealth. At night, they are coveted shelters from wind, sleet or snow. People inside the van know this. Their carefully trained eyes scan the shadows of every building, stairway or bench, watching for hints of life.
On Winter Street, at the end of a brick alley, there’s a flicker of movement. The van pulls over and a figure in a light coat emerges.
“Is that you James?” asks a man with a reassuring, deep voice who has stepped out of the van. “You going in tonight?”
Nelson Bennett knows James. He sees this young man often as Bennett circles downtown Boston in Pine Street Inn’s outreach van. It’s packed with blankets, hats, gloves, underwear, socks and sandwiches. Large insulated containers keep hot water handy for instant soup, oatmeal and hot chocolate.
“It always helps, especially in these conditions, to get some warm liquid into your body,” Bennett says.
Bennett and his crew are also out every night trying to persuade people who plan to sleep on the street to spend the night in a shelter instead.
Now, with the temperature at 15 degrees and dropping, Bennett wants to know, will James come in?
No, James says. His girlfriend was assaulted at one of the shelters and won’t go back, so he’s staying out with her. James stands next to a pile of ripped boxes from which he’s pulling pieces to build their bed. It will be three layers of cardboard pushed up against a glass office front with a short wall around the sides.
“I kind of go a little overboard,” James says, laughing. “I don’t want any of the rodents and whatnot getting in.”
James explains he collects new pieces of cardboard every night and throws them away in the morning.
“Once you get in this situation, it’s like impossible” to get a job and get back into housing, James explains. “I have my own issues up here,” he adds, tapping his head. “I’ve had a lot happen, but I don’t want to deal with it so…”
“Where do you guys stay during the day?” asks Lyndia Downie, the president and executive director at Pine Street Inn who is listening to James’ story. “Have you applied for housing?
Yes, James says, pinching his hands to stave off frostbite, but he’s discouraged.
“If you don’t have kids or you don’t have a disability, they make it seem like you can never get housing. I can’t even explain to you how hopeless I feel sometimes,” James says. “My dream is to be able to come home from work again, just fall back on the couch and mind my own business, and I feel like it’s never going to happen.”
Downie takes some more information from James that she will give to Pine Street’s daytime street team. Bennett brings James some underwear, hot chocolate and two blankets. They are the only bedding James has.
“Thank you, thank you very much,” James says as the crew moves on.
At this hour, around midnight, the streets are empty except for a few garbage trucks, taxis and Pine Street’s van.
‘Justice To The Body’
Outside Macy’s in Downtown Crossing, Bennett approaches bundles of people in each doorway. Cindy peaks out from under a cloth sheet, a Mylar and one wool blanket. She and her husband Carl are among three couples who claim the store’s sheltered entrances every night, in snow, sleet and bitter winds.
“Because we’re married,” Cindy says. “We stay together. We sleep together. There needs to be shelters where married people can get on their feet as well.”
Cindy says she sleeps with one eye open. A few nights ago someone took one of the couple’s blankets.
“But we manage,” Cindy says. “Body heat, love, big word, [and] strength.”
A van outreach worker comes back with the couple’s order, soup and sandwiches. Carl asks if they can also get a blanket.
Pine Street will hand out 60 to 70 blankets tonight, between two vans: one that circles downtown and another that runs through Back Bay into Brighton and Chestnut Hill. A handful of people refuse all offers of help.
“This guy won’t talk to us,” Bennett says walking up to one of two cocooned figures. He stands quietly for a minute, watching for any sign of life.
“We’ll make sure they’re OK, they’re breathing, the blankets are moving, and we’ll leave ‘em alone,” Bennett explains.
The van rolls down Summer Street to a brick facade with an arched opening. The door is four or five feet back, leaving a covered, nearly enclosed space that almost hides a man. Downie approaches.
“You don’t have to come in all night,” she says with quiet pleading. “You could just come in for a few hours and get out of the cold.”
“I don’t mind,” says the man named Stephen.
“I’m cool, or actually I’m pretty warm, I should say,” he laughs. “I like my privacy. That’s all.”
Stephen chooses solitude over the warmth of a crowded shelter, where men are packed tight on a lobby floor this particular night because all the beds are full. Stephen forces himself to get up and move on every morning around 4 a.m. He doesn’t want to get caught sleeping here, to risk losing this space.
“I just don’t want to be in the way, you know what I mean, to be an eyesore for everybody,” Stephen says.
The temperature has dropped to 13 degrees and there’s a biting wind.
A man carrying one sheet of cardboard approaches the van, asking for a coat. There aren’t any. He settles, gratefully, for chicken noodle soup. “Aw you guys are great, thanks,” says the man, also named James.
This James is a gambler, who says he’s just back from Foxwoods where he stayed in one of the big hotels and feasted on lobster and steak.
“I’m bankin’ three grand,” James whispers to Bennett. “I caught on to how to beat the casino at their own game, $400-500 a week, guaranteed. It’s a no-lose game. Where I’m headed now is paradise,” James says as he wanders off.
It’s these guys who Downie worries about the most, the ones who aren’t speaking rationally, aren’t dressed for the cold, who aren’t suicidal but show signs of mental illness.
“He lives in what I call no man’s land,” Downie says, “because if you’re a danger to yourself there’s a possibility of some kind of commitment or guardianship, but if you’re not, your options are pretty limited. In some ways the disease stops you from getting treatment so it’s an odd paradox for people.”
The van has 30 to 35 regular stops, places where the crew expects to find people sleeping outside. The stops change with construction, or as businesses crack down on overnight street occupants.
Street regulars, as some of the homeless folks call themselves, know where to find the van. Subhash is waiting as Bennett hops out on a corner near the Theater District.
“How you doing, boss? You going in tonight?” Bennett asks. And finally, Bennett gets the answer he’s been hoping for, a yes.
Subhash says he had a strategy he hoped would get him through the night.
“I was planning to just walk around,” Subhash explains. “Sleeping can get a little tough in the cold. So probably like 30 minute lie down, then you have to start walking again.”
Except Subhash is now losing feeling in his legs. Still, deciding to go in, where he’ll be on a floor, with someone’s feet in his face, is not the obvious choice for Subhash.
“If you’re homeless, sometimes you just want to lose the crowd,” Subhash says, “to feel a little more reassured about who I am and what not. But a lot of times it doesn’t really do justice to the body. You have to compromise one way or another.”
As the van nears Chinatown, it’s swarmed by almost a dozen men and women in their late teens or 20s.
“I need gloves and socks, for me and my girl,” one man calls out.
“Yeah,” says another, “we need gloves over here.”
The crew runs out of gloves and blankets and heads back to Pine Street Inn to restock.
“Normally we don’t get flooded like that where there’s all those people,” says Jill Fortuna, a full-time outreach counselor on the van. Fortuna says many of these young people aren’t regulars and may just be passing through Boston.
“It’s worrisome to see kids that young out there,” Downie says.
Back at Pine Street, Fortuna unlocks the door to a metal storage container and squints into the dark. Bennett points a flashlight at the labels on a stack of boxes.
“Psyched,” Downie yells after a few seconds. Bennett grins, “gloves, gloves, yes, yes.”
Bennett rips open the box to reveal dozens of flat packages, wrapped by volunteers from Natixis, in red snowflake and green snowman paper.
Downie bursts into laughter. It’s Christmas all over again, here at 1 a.m. in the dead of a cold winter night. But could the box be mislabeled?
“Let’s hope there’s gloves in here,” Downie says.
She and Bennett rip open the packages with the fury of any 8 year old.
“Yep, bingo,” Bennett says.
Downie is relieved.
“We’ve been going through gloves like crazy cause it’s been so cold,” she says.
The restocked van heads toward North Station. It’s closed, but four teenagers huddle near the entrance. Fortuna recognizes them.
“They’re a bunch of young kids that just recently showed up,” she says. “They’ll make a big huge bed near Haymarket. There’s four or five of them who sleep there.”
One by one, the teenagers come to the passenger window of the van. Ben Williams, the driver, writes down their name, date of birth, the last four digits of the Social Security number and the ZIP code of their last residence, information for Pine Street’s client database. One young woman, Marie, asks for soup and blankets, but says she’d rather sleep outside than go in.
“I’ve been doing it for a few years. It doesn’t really bother me,” Marie says in a sing-song voice. “You just bundle up and all that jazz.”
Marie shrugs and walks away as a man named Michael steps forward, saying he can’t take it any more. “The temperature, the wind, there’s no public restrooms,” he explains.
Michael just got out of prison on a cocaine conviction.
“Come to find out,” Michael says, “the lady who tested my drugs said the drugs were real. Annie Dookhan, yeah. Now I come home and there’s no housing.”
Michael says he doesn’t like shelters because the rules seems to change depending on who’s in charge.
“I really think about going back to jail, cause it’s like I know what to expect,” he says. “I expect to be in a cell, with a bed, a toilet, two inmates, breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s simple.”
As the van drops Michael at Pine Street, Downie imagines a night when there won’t be anyone sleeping on the streets and shelters won’t be crowded. She says it would take about 2,000 new rooms.
Research shows that the units would pay for themselves over time, Downie adds, “because the expensive emergency service numbers go down and that offsets any new housing dollars. So doing nothing for chronically homeless people costs more money than putting them in supportive housing.”
The Patrick administration seems to agree. It expects to release details of a multimillion-dollar social investment project this spring aimed at reducing the number people like Cindy, James, Subhash and Michael who spend nights on the street, even in the dead of winter.
What Happens To The Body Of A Person Who Sleeps Outside In Extreme Cold?
Dr. Jim O’Connell, with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, explains:
When a person gets cold, their body shuts down blood going to the skin to preserve warmth near the heart. When hands and feet don’t have enough blood they may develop frostbite.
With frostbite, hands, feet, ears and noses can swell and blister. The skin turns black and necrotic. In cases of severe frostbite, dead tissue will fall off or autoamputate. Some patients are left with a disfigured toe or finger, some lose the tip or whole digit.
In the last two weeks in Boston, a homeless man who sleeps on the street lost one leg below the knee as well as part of the other foot to frostbite. Another man will need to have one of his legs amputated below the knee.
O’Connell explains the body’s reaction to cold in depth here.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Tonight at the Post Office
I walked into the local post office this evening to drop a package in the bin, and a young woman was sitting by the door on a blue plastic mail tub turned upside down. She was packed for travel — her belongings in disposable sacks — but she didn’t appear to be going anywhere. It’s unusual for anyone to be hanging out in the p. o., and as I left the lobby, I said to her, “Is everything OK?” “Not really,” she answered. Me: “Do you need some help?” She: “Yes, but I don’t suppose you’ll be able to do anything.” I’ve been out of the “homeless business” for several years, but, as things happen, the h.b. doesn’t let me go, probably because people without homes are everywhere.
“So what’s going on?” I asked her. “I need a place to stay for a couple of nights,” she answered, “I’m about to be out of a place to live.” She made it sound immediate and temporary, but I wondered if it was and asked, “Are you sleeping out tonight?” — not a good idea for anyone, and never for a woman alone. She said yes. “I know a few people I can call who help people who are homeless…” I hesitated, “I don’t know if you are…” “I am,” she replied. “Well, let me go to my car and get my phone and make a couple of calls,” I responded. “If I don’t reach anyone, I will give you some numbers to try later if you have a mobile.” “I do,” she said.
I asked her first about the local shelters, and she knew the ropes — too late to get in. I mentioned the possibility of emergency beds opening at midnight for overload, but she said that would only happen if the temperature was below freezing. “Should be 40 degrees,” I commented, for no reason, as it’s in the 70’s here today.
As I got back into my car and reached for my phone, I felt in a hurry — I was doing errands on my To Do List, and was running behind schedule. “Oh, no you don’t,” I chastised myself for feeling that there was anything more urgent than this lost young woman who had crossed my path. One of the things I’ve learned since being out of touch with “the street” the past few years is that one forgets… about what matters, about how it never is Us and Them, about the primacy of Now. We want life to be slick and smooth, and every cultural message around us tells us that is should be… but it isn’t.
I knew who to call — friends who run organizations helping unhoused people — and the first call I made was the right one. “Karen! How are you?” said my friend, who was still at work at 9 P.M. and still answering her phone. We exchanged regrets about not having dinner in a while, and I told her the situation, asking, “Can you find a place for her?” “If it’s an emergency,” she said. This woman always comes through for people in trouble as no one else does. “How will she get here?” my friend asked. “I don’t do this any more,” I said, “but I think I’m just going to bring her. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
I used to take strangers in my car from time to time, but I’ve stopped for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it started to feel like not-the-right-thing for me to do. But most importantly, my eleven-year-old granddaughter, who is very wise, learned about it and asked me just last week if I did it still. When I said not usually, she replied, “Good, I don’t think you should.” I trust her judgment.
Back in the p. o. lobby and ignoring that judgment, I told Lakita, “I’ve found you a place, and I’ll take you there if you want to go.” She hesitated and asked where it was. I told her — “Not the best neighborhood, I know, but you’ll be safe there” — but she shook her head. “OK,” I said, “then here are the numbers of some people who can maybe help you tomorrow. If you get in trouble tonight, I think it’s safe these days to call the Dallas Police — didn’t always used to be, but I think things are better.” “Oh, they know me,” she smiled, “It depends on who’s on duty.” “So I’ve heard,” I smiled back. Gallows humor.
“Best of luck,” I told her. “Thank you,” she said, and I left the building.
As I walked to my car, Lakita opened the door of the post office and called out to me, “If I could, I’d give you the world!” I replied, “Right back atcha’!”