‘Generic Ministry’ cares for Boston homeless in all weather
by Karen Shafer, February 10, 2011
“The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” -Hubert Humphrey, 1977
The Boston area has been slammed by an unusually large amount of snow this winter, even by New England standards — six snowstorms in a month — but that does not stop John Mark, Judi, Mick, Robert, Scott and the dedicated volunteers of Generic Ministry in the small town Needham, Massachusetts from hitting the streets of downtown Boston every Tuesday and Wednesday night to care for those who are homeless. During a visit to my family in January, 2011, it was my privilege to ride along with this dedicated group for two nights in the midst of the some of Boston’s most extreme weather in years, and to learn a little bit about the situation for our homeless brothers and sisters in the Boston area. Although Boston provides an adequate number of shelter beds for its homeless population, there are always people in any city who are ‘shelter resistant’ — unable or unwilling to cope with going into shelters, often due to mental illness and its ramifications.
The Generic Ministry van is equipped with shelves of warm clothing organized by size and type, with hanging racks of winter-worthy coats, with bins of socks, underwear and hygiene products, and with military surplus blankets, all of which are stocked and sorted twice weekly by a ‘behind-the-scenes crew’ made up of Robert (who also coordinates all contacts), Rick, and Scott, and by Martha, who finds online deals for the toiletries. Sandwiches made by school children in Needham and adjacent towns are available, as are bottled water, juice, chips and desserts.
Street feeding is not prohibited in Boston as it currently is in Dallas, and requires no registration or permit, but I was still surprised the first night when we pulled up right on the busy street next to the sidewalk across from Boston Common and opened up the van for the distribution of food and clothing. The food giveaway is run by volunteers who themselves are formerly homeless, and they were waiting for us in front of a popular hamburger restaurant when we arrived. Immediately about thirty people came out of nowhere and formed a line behind the truck to request warm clothing, while traffic on the busy street patiently drove around us. Generic Ministry volunteer Mick filled orders for specific clothing items and sizes from inside the van. Short a worker for manning the food line, Anthony and James, who head up the formerly-homeless volunteers, put me to work distributing food from a table on the sidewalk, although we had to search for a path through the snow bank, which was about waist high. (By the time I left the area a week later, the snow banks were higher than your head!)
After everyone had been served, the remaining sandwiches, chips, desserts and bottled water were given to the formerly-homeless volunteers to distribute among people who sleep in train stations, doorways, alleyways, and on church steps throughout the city. At this point there was ample time for visiting and street counseling. The Generic Ministry volunteers have warm and mutually-respectful relationships with their street friends and seem to know them well. They hand out cards printed with information about shelters, emergency services, medical care and rehabilitation, but their service goes way beyond this. If someone is in need of transportation to a shelter or the emergency room (there are three major hospitals in the area), they will transport them in their van — or call 911 if appropriate, and they keep track of the situations and challenges of individuals from week to week.
One of the people I’ll always remember from that first night is Harry. He had brought with him a beautiful spiral bound notebook tied with ribbons, and I saw him ask John Mark for his signature. It turns out he was collecting autographs in celebration of the life of Sargent Shriver and his advocacy for those living in poverty and with disabilities. Then he pulled a twenty dollar bill from his pocket and gave it to John Mark as a donation for the ministry.
The next night, as we made the ministry’s usual stops around downtown Boston, Harry met us again at one of the locations to help out. I was sitting in the front seat of the van with the door open, and he came up to say ‘hi’. He was so cold that his teeth were chattering and he was shivering, as the temperature edged in the direction of zero for the second night in a row, but his dedication is such that he had gotten a ride from the halfway house where he lives in a small town outside of Boston to come and aid the ministry. I offered him a blanket to wrap around himself, but he laughed as he declined it — “Oh, I’m not homeless!” he said. John Mark later told me that Harry had collected clothing for his homeless brothers and sisters in the past and gotten a ride for the half-hour trip to the ministry headquarters to deliver it in person.
A highlight of the Wednesday night outing was a visit to the Pilgrim Church Homeless Shelter in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a neighborhood of Boston, where Generic Ministry delivers desserts weekly. The shelter operates without guards, metal detectors or policing of any kind, except for the self-policing done by those who stay there, despite the fact that Pilgrim Center takes in men who have been banned from other area shelters. Out of respect for those who were already bedded down for the night and those who were waiting in line to get in, I walked through quickly, but the order and calm of the shelter space — a church sanctuary with the pews removed — made a deep impression on me.
Later, outside on the snow-covered parking lot, I was introduced to the church’s pastor, The Rev. Mr. John Odams, and I asked him how the shelter works so well without guards. “We used to have a policeman on duty, but he didn’t have anything to do,” he told me. “I’m not sure why it works. Maybe it’s because it’s more an atmosphere of a home than a shelter.” A large number of those who stay at Pilgrim Shelter have aged out of foster care, not having been adopted by the age of eighteen, so the shelter is run under the direction of the United Homes Adult Services division of Children’s Services of Roxbury.
Keeping an eye on the weather, we left Dorchester and drove into downtown Boston. An emergency weather declaration had been issued for Boston that night — with the expectation of a winter gale predicted for 9 P.M. and slated to bring at least an additional eight inches of snow on top of the approximately four feet that had already fallen this winter — which means any car blocking roads or impeding snowplows can be towed by the city at the owner’s expense. As we drove around downtown, emergency vehicles were busy removing cars that had been left parked in order to make way for snow plows and sanding trucks. Despite the amount of snow that had fallen in the last several weeks, the streets of downtown were clear of snow, having been plowed and sanded aggressively in preparation for the next round that night.
The ministry know the whereabouts of a number of individuals and groups who ‘sleep rough’ in the downtown area and makes about a dozen stops on its Wednesday night rounds. In front of a downtown Seven-Eleven, we saw one of their ‘regulars’ — Sammy — sitting hunched over on a low windowsill. Judi got out to check on him, while we pulled over by a snow bank and parked the van next to the sidewalk in the valet area of an elegant-looking restaurant. I was surprised that no one asked us to move, though there were a number police cars cruising the area, as the streets were still actively being cleared of parked cars. Judi came back to the van with the message that Sammy had a leg injury and wanted to go inside somewhere for the night, so together she and John Mark helped him into the van. It had seemed at first that Sammy was willing to go into Pine Street Inn, a major Boston shelter, or to the hospital, but en route to the shelter he made the decision to go back to his camp in the back of a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority train station, so we took him there, and Judi and John Mark helped him limp inside.
Sammy had left Barbara McInnis House (which provides respite medical care for homeless men and women) against medical advice that same week, and, on our way to his camp, he and Judi discussed his plan for re-admittance. I was struck again by the nonjudgmental and respectful-yet-realistic approach that Judi took with him, acknowledging his rights as an individual to make choices — good or bad — yet encouraging in a calm and supportive way the healthy choice of rehabilitation and medical care. It is because of this non-patronizing approach that Generic Ministry — called ‘earth people’ by their homeless friends — has the trust and confidence of this extremely wary, at-risk population.
At one point we parked in a cab stand, and the cabbies waited patiently in line behind us as a small group of people lined up for clothing, blankets and sandwiches and we visited with them. A prosperous-looking man walked by and stopped to watch what we were doing. He looked at the ‘Generic Ministry’ name on the side of the van and nodded: “I like it,” he said.
As we continued our rounds, including a visit to another MBTA station encampment, I expressed my surprise that people are allowed to seek out and create their own shelter in the downtown Boston area, considering the restrictions on homeless people in Dallas and other cities and the amount of resources that many cities spend on policing to keep them off the street. Here is a conversation from a Boston Herald article which seems to sum up the city’s approach towards it homeless citizens. The article covers a high-profile homeless woman who refused to go indoors for this cold snap, saying she could handle this level of cold.
Homeless woman shuns shelter as temps turn deadly
By Christine McConville / The Pulse / Tuesday, January 25, 2011
“I’m not that cold,” she said, as she showcased her seven layers of clothing. “I can handle it.”Not possible, Boston police Superintendent in Chief Daniel Linskey told the Pulse. While police can’t force people off the streets, he said, he doubts the wisdom of testing the elements. “This cold is a different type of cold. It’s lethal. You can have negative effects just being exposed to the elements for a few minutes,” Linskey said.
This weekend, the city ordered evening shelters to remain open during the day and relaxed requirements for other, sober-only facilities. There’s the obvious threat of frostbite and hypothermia, said Dr. James O’Connell, who provides medical care for Boston’s many homeless. And in extreme weather conditions, chronic medical conditions can really tax the body, he said. “There’s nothing good about staying outside in this,” he said.
Each year in Boston, one or two people die from the extreme cold, he said, numbers kept down by active campaigns to get people into shelters….
No one can force [the woman] indoors. “It’s a tricky situation,” O’Connell said. “People have the right to live their life the way they want.”
Linskey agreed. “If someone can show us their sleeping bag and a heat source, and they are lucid and have the method and manner to survive the cold weather, we would allow them that option, if what they are doing is legal,” Linskey said. “If they’re drunk or in harm, we can put them in protective custody, but mainly, we’re just looking for them to go to the shelter.”
Yesterday, the city’s push appeared to be largely working. The Pine Street Inn was setting up extra cots to accommodate the overflow crowd, shelter spokesman Barbara Trevisan said.
O’Connell said he’s seeing some patients indoors for the first time. “There’s an elderly man in his mid 70s, and this weekend was the first time in 26 years I’ve seen him sleep in a bed, rather than a sidewalk,” he said. “With the bitter cold and all the snow, even though he struggles to be around other people, he realized it’s better to be inside.”
This article seems to represent a fundamentally different view of homeless issues and civil rights than what we are accustomed to seeing in many cities, and certainly in Dallas. Perhaps it can be classified as ‘non-criminalization’. One often hears about the ‘rights of individuals’, but this so often means that the rights of those who have financial means supersedes the rights of those who do not: property owners, business owners and organizations of those who are housed are more likely to be heard than those who are disenfranchised and have nothing.
At our last stop, a small tent camp on Boston Harbor that had been in the news because of the city’s efforts to persuade people living there to come inside during the extreme cold, Judi and John Mark delivered some supplies to the campers on foot. Then, as we began the drive home, we looked up at the Boston skyline, which was just beginning to be shrouded in a mist of snow. “It’s here,” said John Mark, of the impending snowstorm. It was making its appearance just over an hour past its predicted start time and had thankfully given us a grace period to complete our rounds. By the time we reached my family’s house about twenty minutes away, the footprints that we’d left on the driveway just a few hours earlier were completely obscured by the steadily falling snow.
Generic Ministry, Needham, Massachusetts
Pilgrim Church Homeless Shelter, Dorchester, Massachusetts
Pine Street Inn, Boston, Massachusetts
Barbara McInnis House, Boston, Massachusetts
This article appeared in the March, 2011 issue of Street Zine. http://www.thestewpot.org/sz.asp