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Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Why Some Bostonians Refuse Shelter In The Dead Of Winter, And How They Survive October 29, 2014

From the Boston Globe:  listen to the story here…

http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2014/02/homeless-cold-winter-shelter

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.

 

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Should We House Homeless Alcoholics…? January 3, 2012

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

 

Should We House Homeless Alcoholics or Make Them Get Sober First?

 

People will doubtless have strong — and differing — opinions about this, but I’ll offer this observation:  the traditional approach of making homeless alcoholics and drug addicts get clean and sober before they qualify for housing has left a large percentage of them still on the street.  The Housing First approach described in this article has some very favorable statistics in its favor.

 

Is it better, if someone is going to die of their addiction, for them to die cold and alone outdoors?  Maybe if they don’t have the ‘moral courage’ to get clean, this is what they deserve.    This Associated Press article considers some differing perspectives.  What do you think?  KS

 

http://enews.earthlink.net/article/top?guid=20120103/243cdd6f-7af9-4a07-aef4-bfe5d271fa78

 

 

Medicine That Matters October 13, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

 

Medicine That Matters

by Karen Shafer

“The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s mission is to provide or assure access to the highest quality health care for all homeless men, women and children in the greater Boston area.”

The lobby of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program at Jean Yawkey Place, with Deshawn Parris, Security Officer, and Shirley Berard, Administrative Assistant

Jean Yawkey Place 

In the summer of 2011, while touring the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, I stepped off the third-floor elevator into Barbara McInnis House, looked around, and began to cry, (and I’m pretty sure it was what Oprah refers to as “the ugly cry”.)  Those accompanying me — my daughter, two of my grandchildren, and our tour guide, Manager of Volunteer Services Carrie Eldridge-Dickson — at first looked at me in surprise.  After all, we were viewing a beautiful, pristine environment decorated in pastels — a state-of-the-art facility which provides “medical respite care”, short-term medical and recuperative services, for homeless men and women in Boston, Massachusetts.  I felt as if I’d stepped into an ideal world.

 

My companions’ surprise turned quickly to understanding.  They shared the comprehension that my tears were in part joyful at what has been accomplished there, but that they also conveyed frustration at how few of our homeless brothers and sisters will ever experience the level of loving and dignified care expressed in the atmosphere surrounding us at that moment.

 

The 104-bed Barbara McInnis House is a medical respite care facility spread throughout three floors of Jean Yawkey Place, Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s central facility which opened in May of 2008.  The building also houses a primary care walk-in clinic with ten exam rooms and four meeting rooms for mental health care, a dental clinic with five operatories, a pharmacy, office space for “street” and “family” outreach teams, and the organization’s administrative offices.

 

Barbara McInnis House provides 24-hour care for homeless men and women who are too sick for life on the streets or in shelters but not sick enough to occupy acute care rooms in area hospitals.  It has a dining room that serves patients three nutritious meals a day, and a large common area and outdoor patio — all under one roof.

 

The cellar-to-roof renovation of this former city morgue and forensic research facility now addresses the unique medical needs of the city’s homeless men and women.  It was made possible through the combined generosity of private, foundation and corporate donors.  BHCHP raised $42,000,000 in the organization’s only capital campaign in its 26-year history.

 

Model of Care

Jean Yawkey Place sets the stage for the model of ‘integrated care’ practiced at BHCHP.  The organization’s web site, www.BHCHP.org, describes the complex challenge of tackling health care among the vulnerable homeless population.

“Many homeless patients struggle with at least one substance abuse problem, at least one chronic physical condition and a psychiatric illness. Each condition is often preventable and manageable… on its own. But, in combination and left untreated, such health problems become compounded and all too often fatal. Medicine, in general, and homeless medicine, in particular, have long grappled with addressing these interconnected aspects of a patient’s healthcare in a coordinated way. In the traditional care model, behavioral health care and medical care operate independently.

The integrated care model at BHCHP unites physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, case managers and behavioral health professionals in a close collaboration. They follow patients together and separately in a variety of settings: on the street, at Barbara McInnis House, in outpatient clinics and, as needed, in shelter or housing.

A patient can move from street to clinic to hospital to respite care to shelter to housing, having easy and regular contact with at least one member of the medical team so that serious medical and behavioral diagnoses receive integrated attention.”

No homeless person is refused treatment at BHCHP.  The professional staff provides medical treatment to homeless men, women and children at eighty locations across the city — in adult and family shelters; in two hospital-based clinics; in emergency, transitional and permanent-supportive housing; and through home visits to formerly long-term homeless patients who are now housed through the Housing First initiatives in Boston.  They also provide care on the street, in alleyways and under bridges to those “rough sleepers” who avoid shelters.

 

BHCHP’s Beginnings

How does such an impressive result come to be?  An article from the American Journal of Public Health entitled “The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program: A Public Health Framework” talks about its beginnings.  (O’Connell, Oppenheimer, Judge, Taube, Blanchfield, Swain, Koh: August, 2010)

 

In 1984, a community coalition consisting of eighty people representing shelters, homeless service providers, community health centers, nursing and medical schools, state and city governments, homeless persons, and advocacy groups was convened by Boston mayor Raymond Flynn and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.  An extensive community needs assessment to identify gaps in existing health care services was then conducted.

 

Initial funding for the program came through a pilot grant of $300,000 annually for four years from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts, subsequently matched by an additional $250,000 annually from the state of Massachusetts.

 

City wide cooperation and ‘buy in’ strikes me right away as a predictor of the program’s probable success, and, in particular, the inclusion of homeless people and their advocates in the planning.  All too often, critical issues of how service is to be conceived and delivered to the homeless community is decided by committees comprised of those who have never experienced homelessness, without ‘grass roots’ input.  Such a comprehensive network early on hopefully precludes the ‘fiefdom’ approach of non profit organizations that can occur in cities, resulting in duplication of services and competition for funding.

 

The Mission of BHCHP

“To provide or assure access to the highest quality health care for all homeless men, women and children in the greater Boston area.”

When the program began offering clinical services in 1985 with a staff of seven, these things stand out in terms of its mission:

“The coalition insisted that health care be embraced as a matter of social justice rather than charity, and they defined the program’s mission to ensure that the highest-quality health care would be available to all homeless men, women, and children in Boston.” (O’Connell, et al)

It also viewed  itself as a viable professional career for health professionals rather than as a volunteer opportunity and hoped to ensure thereby continuity of top-tier, accessible health care for homeless men, women and children.  This seems a radically positive, innovative notion, and would seem to insure that, by having physicians and other health care providers as salaried employees of BHCHP, not only would availability of health care be assured, but vital relationships of trust could be built between provider and patient, leading to ‘continuity of care.’

 

What is meant by ‘continuity of care’?

1.  Continuity of care from street and shelter to hospital requires an enduring and trusting relationship between the doctor or clinician and patient.

2.  Multidisciplinary teams should deliver care.

3.  BHCHP should act as a catalyst within the mainstream health care system to ensure that the special needs of homeless persons are addressed.

4.  BHCHP should serve as the “glue” linking hospitals and health centers with the community of shelters and homeless service providers.

5.  BHCHP should strive to bridge medicine and public health.

6.  BHCHP should create and implement ‘respite care.’  [now existing as Barbara McInnis House]  (O’Connell, et al)

It is also significant that BHCHP is located near two teaching hospitals, Massachusetts General and Boston Medical Center.  BHCHP has walk-in clinics on the campuses of both facilities.  Colleges and universities are now educating healthcare providers in increased sensitivity to the particular needs of various ethnic and social groups.  This is especially important as the homeless population is one which requires special care in building trust and relationships, both because of possible health issues such as mental illness or addiction, and because attitudes toward homeless people in society as a whole tend at times to be negative, and opportunities for rejection abound.

 

Who Deserves Compassionate Care?

One only has to read the comments section of newspaper articles on homelessness — where homeless people are frequently referred to as ‘bums’ or in other derogatory language — to understand the negativity which can be directed at people living on the street.  This attitude in the public at large may be a more powerful determinant of the quality and scope of the health care offered to the homeless population than one thinks.  For example, some nonprofit organizations seeking to provide health care to those living in poverty may be hesitant to include homeless individuals within their scope — even when they believe they are deserving and needful of help — because they may feel that the ‘homeless’ label will impede funding efforts.

 

So, at the heart of the mission of any program offering health care to those living in poverty must be the consideration of this question:  Are people experiencing homelessness deserving of compassionate care?  Whether or not to include homeless healthcare in programs may in part be a matter of conscience, where non profit leaders either bend to public pressure and opinion, or stand firm in the moral commitment to treat all human beings as equally deserving of inclusion in a community of care.

 

The decision at the outset by the founders of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program to emphatically declare that individuals who are homeless are entitled to and would be provided with top tier, continuous and compassionate health care, provided in an integrated model by on-staff medical and clinical professionals, and with the assumption of the inherent worthiness of each patient to receive such care, regardless of circumstance, represents a rare commitment, but one that seems to have been met there in an extraordinarily successful manner.

 

Toward the end of our tour of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, my family and I were fortunate to have a chance meeting with Dr. James O’Connell, a founding physician of the program and currently its president.  When we told him how moved we were by the beauty of the facility and the range and depth of its proffered services, he said, “Remember, it hasn’t always been like this!  It took us a while to get here.”

 

The success of the program says a great deal about an inspired vision; about the wisdom of its founders and their careful planning; about a limitless amount of dedicated work and commitment; and also, not to be underestimated, about the political and moral will of a public which supports and undergirds the idea that those who at this moment live in society’s shadows are nonetheless deserving of its best.

 

BHCHP Overview

~~ BHCHP has operated in the black for all of its 26 years and has brought medicine that matters to tens of thousands of homeless men, women and children.

~~ BHCHP employs close to 300 doctors, dentists, physician assistants, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health case workers, chefs, building and maintenance staff, substance abuse counselors, case managers and dental assistants.

~~ BHCHP delivers health care to over 11,000 patients each year.

~~ BHCHP manages the medical care throughout greater Boston’s adult and family shelter system, in two hospital based clinics and at over 80 sites throughout greater Boston.

~~ Over its 26 year history BHCHP has developed a care model that makes it a leader in urban medicine throughout the world…compassionate, professional care from a full-time staff…immeasurable savings in both dignity and dollars.

Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program: www.BHCHP.org

 

Special thanks to Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, in particular Tom McCormack andVicki Ritterband for editing, and Carrie Eldridge-Dickson;  and to Nancy Johnson, Master’s of Science Candidate with a focus on Community Health, for access to journal articles and for thoughtful discussions of and insights into public health policy.


 

This article appears in the October, 2011 issue of Street Zine, which is available from licensed street vendors across Dallas.

 

Mayoral Forum Held at The Stewpot April 16, 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2010


Mayoral Forum Held at The Stewpot This Week


The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church, Dallas, held a mayoral forum Thursday, April 14, 2011 to give Dallas Mayoral candidates an opportunity to address questions regarding the concerns and well-being of Dallas homeless citizens.  Present at the event were vendors of the homeless newspaper Street Zine (published by The Stewpot), Stewpot and Crossroads Community Services staff, Bridge Homeless Assistance Center staff and homeless advocates.  The forum was organized by Street Zine Editor, Pat Spradley and other Stewpot staffers, and the candidates were invited to the event by homeless advocate Clare Nilson.

Panelists were former Dallas Police Chief, David Kunkle, and former Homeless Czar, Mike Rawlings. Candidates Ron Natinsky and Edward Okpa were invited but unable to attend.

The questions ranged from their support of sales of the homeless newspaper published by The Stewpot, Street Zine and the needs of homeless citizens generally, to questions about the Bridge Homeless Assistance Center, and specifics regarding the candidates’ opinions of so-called Quality of Life ordinances, passed by Dallas and other cities to limit the presence and movements of homeless citizens in public places.  Those attending learned about the opinions of the men regarding homelessness and a little of their personalities as well.

Everyone involved in the event is appreciative that the two candidates took time to attend and offer their perspectives on the important issues facing those experiencing homelessness in our city.  Much gratitude as well goes to Ms. Spradley, Ms. Nilson and the Rev. Dr. Bruce Buchanan, Executive Director of The Stewpot, as well as Stewpot staff, for hosting this event.

KS

Check the Street Zine Facebook page next week for an update on this important and informational event and see some pictures as well at :

www.facebook.com/pages/Street-Zine/157413954313713?sk=wall

 

Generic Ministry Cares for Boston Homeless in All Weather March 1, 2011

 

‘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.

 

John Mark loads the van on a cold January night

 

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.

 

Mick & John Mark making the rounds after a snowstorm

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

http://bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1311794

“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

www.genericministry.org

Pilgrim Church Homeless Shelter, Dorchester, Massachusetts

http://www.pilgrimchurch1862.org/ministrytothehomeless/pilgrimhomelessshelter.html

Pine Street Inn, Boston, Massachusetts

http://www.pinestreetinn.org/

Barbara McInnis House, Boston, Massachusetts

http://www.bhchp.org/specializedservices.htmhttp://www.bhchp.org/pdf/BMHBrochure-JYP.pdf

This article appeared in the March, 2011 issue of Street Zine. http://www.thestewpot.org/sz.asp


 

Conversations in Brief September 5, 2010

Sunday, September 5, 2010

 

 

Conversations In Brief

 

I have a friend who is unhoused, and I fear he always will be.  He’s been given a ‘diagnosis’ — a label for a mental disorder — but he doesn’t necessarily know this, or prefers not to acknowledge it.  To get housing, he’d have to sign away his sanity in order to qualify for disability payments, and this is something he’s either unable or unwilling to do.

 

When I read comments on blogs about ‘the homeless,’ and hear them described bitterly — ‘bums, no-goods, get-a-job’ — I think how my friend would be someone the commenters would be referring to if they just saw him on the sidewalk.  Except he worked all his life.  He also attended two elite universities, excelling in physics and chemistry, and served in the military.  But somewhere along the line his mother died, and things in his mind and emotions began to unravel.  His last job, which he did faithfully, was drinks manager at a drive-in restaurant.

 

The fog deepened.  Before long, he was on the street.

 

I think about him often, worry about him, too.  When the homeless-haters talk about the drunks and addicts on the street, I think of how my friend is clean and sober.  When they talk about the thugs that are the homeless, I recall his gentleness and nonviolence.

 

I brought him a new coat during the cold winter weather last year, and as he was transferring his belongings from his filthy torn jacket to the new one, I saw that he had one possession — a tattered pocket-sized New Testament.

 

How does he survive out there in the hellish land of street life?  It’s hard to imagine and painful to ponder.  I question him about it, but his answers, as always, reveal little.  They, and he, are enigmatic to a point.  I asked him recently if he felt safe.  ”Not really,” he said.  Not too long ago, he had a bad wound on his forearm, and I wanted to know what happened.  ”I don’t remember,” he replied.  But I can’t push for more.  He can’t tolerate a lot of conversation.  This summer I asked, “How are you in this heat?”  ”Hot,” he said.  Last winter I wanted to know, “How were you during the snow last week?”  ”Well, cold,” was his reply — two words rather than one!  That’s an improvement.  I’ve known him about four years, and it’s taken our conversation that long to progress to this level.

 

Today I sat beside him in a meeting where our county’s public hospital was being discussed.  ”Do you use Parkland Hospital?”  I leaned over and whispered to him.  He must not have heard me right, because he turned and looked me full in the eye [he usually communicates only sideways and in murmurs] and replied, emphatically and perhaps a little testily, “PARKLAND.  MEMORIAL.  HOSPITAL.”  He apparently thought that either it was a vacuous question or that I was hard of hearing.  I didn’t give up, though:  ”I know, but do you use it?”  (One has to hold one’s own.)  He went into a brief and mumbled explanation — something to do with ‘phases’ — but the words trailed off and I couldn’t hear them.

 

His fingernails today were long but very clean (a first), but his t-shirt was quite grubby.  I’d luckily brought along a new t-shirt for him from Target in a dark gray, because it will probably need to go at least a month without washing.

 

“Where do you eat?” I asked him recently.  ”Nowhere.”  ”Well, how do you get by?”  ”Oh, Pepsodent helps.”  [Three words!]  I burst out laughing, and he did, too.  Eating toothpaste?  A little street and gallows humor.  So once in a while I bring along a sack of fruit cups and those little tins of tuna salad with crackers.  Today I had some fresh organic bananas, which he pulled out and ate on the spot.  One day, I stuck in a couple of croissants.  ”Oh, croissants!” he said, delighted.  Two words again.

 

I feel very powerless about my friend sometimes, because I am powerless.  I often fall back into the old trap of wanting to ‘fix it.’  I can’t, though.  On a good day, I can take that step beyond fixing it and fall headlong into Grace — landing on banks of beautiful, towering, white, fluffy cumulus clouds, like the ones on greeting cards that talk about Heaven — and I can genuinely trust that everything will be fine.

 

Other days, I repeat to myself (not necessarily believing it and certainly not being able to live by it), ‘If you pray, don’t worry.  If you worry, don’t pray,’ a misquote, I believe, of Martin Luther.

 

On yet other days, I realize that to be near my friend — in his presence — is to know God directly.  I don’t have to do anything — just show up and realize that Love has shown up, too.

 

The hard part of being his friend is accepting that I can do nothing — letting go of expectations, forgetting that he’s a genius with unfulfilled ‘potential’, not expecting ‘progress’ on some sort of pie-in-the-sky bar chart.  ’Progress’ may come, or it may not.  However, it is not up to me.  But our culture doesn’t really allow for the possibility of not ‘moving up,’ does it?  Not ‘taking the pills’ in order to ‘get well’ or at least ‘function at an acceptable level’ in order to ‘fit in’?  Most of the time, neither do my own built-in biases.  This friendship constantly challenges me to see life…  not in gradesABCDF…  or dollars1to7figures… or positionsdirectorofsomething… or contributionsinkindfinancialgivingofyourtalentsandabilities — but as something that can just be still, and be more than OK — be holy and sacred.

 

KS

 

 

 

To Be a Great City, Must We All Look Alike? July 7, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010


To Be A Great City, Must We All Look Alike?

Recently I received an e-mail from a Dallas church leader whom I greatly respect, and it contained this statement regarding people who are homeless in Dallas: “We don’t want them on our streets.  We don’t want them in our neighborhoods.  We can’t have it both ways.”

The debate on how and where homeless citizens will be housed has long been debated nationally, and the fight of neighborhoods to exclude homeless housing even has its own acronym:  NIMBY — Not In My Backyard.  This conversation in Dallas has recently become more open and heated because of a dispute between the agencies representing homeless citizens — in particular, the Dallas Housing Authority and The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center — and homeowner / business associations in North Oak Cliff, over the city’s plan to house up to one hundred homeless individuals in Cliff Manor.  WhiIe painful, the discussion is also desirable, because it is leading to a higher-profile airing of the many sides of the Permanent Supportive Housing issue.

For me, it brings to mind a question that is not always asked:  why do we object so vehemently to seeing poor people on our streets and in our neighborhoods, and is this objection reasonable?  Is having our streets free of ‘the poor’ a desirable goal?

I am reminded of several visits I made to Paris, France, several years ago when one of my daughters studied and worked there.  I found it to be the most exhilarating and beautiful place I’d ever been — architecturally stunning, and fascinating in its diversity.  The thrilling, dizzying mix of all sorts of people — on the streets, in the crowded cafes, rushing into the Metro; reading, sitting, lying on the grass; running, walking, cycling; old men and kids bowling in the parks — these things make it a vigorous, animated city, and I fell for it the first time I was driven through its environs by my future son-in-law.

I especially liked walking in the evening to the Champ de Mars, the park in front of the Eiffel Tower.  There I saw families picnicking, dogs chasing Frisbees, and people of every description playing games or music — even juggling fire!  Those gathered at day’s end in the large open grassy space are poor and rich, dressed up and dressed simply.

When I compare life in Paris with my experiences working with homeless people in Dallas for the last six and a half years, one particular difference leaps to mind.  Cities across America, including Dallas, continue to develop and implement strategies to get people who are homeless out of sight.  These include passing special laws that target homeless individuals — ‘sleeping in public,’ ‘criminal trespass,’ ‘blocking the sidewalk,’ — so-called ‘Quality of Life’ ordinances for which a person in business clothing would not be ticketed but which allow police to pinpoint those who ‘look homeless’ and try to hustle them from view.

We all know how the Quality-of-Life-Ordinance story concludes:  tickets that cannot be paid by homeless individuals, warrants for their arrest, jail terms which make their complicated life situation even more challenging, the filling of jails with people who are in fact generally not a social threat.  This much-written-about practice of shifting the homeless from emergency services to prison to back on the street is not only the costliest way of doing business, it’s utterly inhumane, because so many of the homeless are mentally ill and do not belong in jail.  So the people authorities want to get rid of haven’t gone anywhere, only now they have more obstacles to overcome in order to get their lives together.  It makes no sense at all.

While we strive here to keep our homeless citizens out of public view by enforcing these laws, in Paris no one was being ticketed for lying on the grass of the park or sitting on its benches, because everybody does these things — talking, laughing, singing, sleeping.  Yet, somehow that city has a spectacular ‘quality of life’ because its public life is vibrant and diverse.

I have come to realize that by trying to control the access of our least fortunate citizens to places and aspects of our common city life, we are attempting to create an environment that is homogeneous and sterile rather than one that is vital and alive.  Could this be a reason why revitalization in downtown Dallas continues to lag?  Is it really interesting to interact with and observe only people who are polished and look as though they just breezed in from ritzy a suburban mall?

The homeless are with us.  When we don’t see them, it is only because they have been forced into hiding.  We are creating a deceptive level of comfort for ourselves by forcing from view people who make us uncomfortable in their poverty.

The desire for homogeneity in communities used to manifest itself primarily in terms of skin color: Jim Crow laws, segregation.  While racism is still a significant problem in our country, now it seems that we at least pay lip service to the desirability of racial diversity, and civil rights laws are in place to enforce equal rights and give access to the judicial system when they are violated.  Whether you believe that racism has gone underground or has actually decreased, it’s still apparently acceptable to shun people because of their economic situation, especially when it comes to individuals who ‘look homeless.’  What is wrong with having people on the streets of our cities who may be dressed in clothing and groomed in a manner that is not ‘up to’ our middle class standards?  It seems to me that successful cities are not merely hothouses designed only for the rich and well-heeled.  A great city is a place where all kinds of people can live, as well as simply ‘be’ — not only people who look or dress a certain way.

Perhaps it would be a good thing if the current discussion, which began by a debate over the location of Permanent Supportive Housing for people experiencing homelessness, precipitated an identity crisis for us as a city and led us to look at ourselves both deeply and objectively.  Is it possible for us to step back and re-invision the Dallas of tomorrow from a different perspective?  Does our vision for ourselves really need to include having our streets free of everyone who doesn’t ‘look like us’?

Recently at Dallas City Council, two homeless women in attendance at the public meeting were asked by an advocate to stand.  Outraged, a city leader said he felt ‘ambushed.’  One puzzles as to what could possibly motivate such a statement.  Perhaps seeing people who are poor being called attention to in a meeting (a meeting that is in fact open to everyone) is offensive to some because it puts a human face on homelessness.  When we see and come to know people who are ‘poor’ as fellow human beings, it’s no longer quite as easy to marginalize them.  Once we see their humanity and recognize it as identical to our own, we may realize: it’s not ‘us and them’.  These could be our neighbors and our friends.

What is the cost to us as a city when we pursue policies that exclude a certain group of people from public life?  Besides the vibrancy which comes from diversity, at risk is also the greater good of the city — its moral fiber, its wholeness, its ability to address and solve hard problems such as homelessness.

I’ll bring up a point that I’ve not heard mentioned as we’re swept along in the tide of this essential and critically important battle to provide housing for 700 to 1000 long-term, street-dwelling homeless people in Dallas:  there will be a few people — a few — who will not want to go into housing, even though the vast majority want very much to be housed.  Therein lies a hidden danger in having as our goal city streets that are pristine in the sense of being homeless-and-beggar-free. It is important that our success in housing people does not become a further excuse to persecute those who are unable or unwilling to be housed.  It is not a ‘blight’ to see people on the streets of our town who ‘look homeless’ — ie, poor — but it is truly tragic when people desperately want housing and are unable get it.

We have to be wary of having as our goal a city which is visibly free of ‘poor’ people if the impetus for that goal is the desire within ourselves to live insulated lives, free of the necessity to view the suffering of others.

As the Dallas public becomes increasingly educated through informed public dialogue about the benefits of Permanent Supportive Housing, perhaps holding in our hearts an honor for our differences can help us understand that those who have had a very different life path from our own can still be excellent neighbors.

It is not easy or simple to walk the path of reaching out to those who are down on their luck by including rather than excluding them from public life, because when we do this, we share in their pain, and we may become temporarily uncomfortable.  But the upside is that our lives will be richer and more meaningful by far when we embrace our differences and realize that we are all — rich, poor, and in between — much greater and finer than we ever dreamed when we are able to work and live together.

KS

This article appears in the July, 2010 edition of Street Zinehttp://www.thestewpot.org/

and on Pegasus News.comhttp://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2010/jul/13/dallas-be-great-city-must-we-all-look-alike/?refscroll=13