It is Friday, 9:15 p.m. Bruce backs the outreach van out of the parking area of Boston’s Pine Street Inn. It’s well packed with blankets, various articles of clothing, sandwiches, hot and cold water, instant hot chocolate and soup packets, some crackers and a case of oranges. Sean and I sit quietly.
The night is beautifulmagnificent, really, when you let it into your soul. I drink in the beauty: a star-studded sky, clear, crisp air, night lights flickering here and there in the quiet, and a crescent moon. As we slowly wend our way, we turn onto Commonwealth Avenue. I can feel the touch of something powerful in the air. Maybe it’s the excitement, the curiosity of my first trip with part of the outreach team. This night it is Bruce, a big man, street-wise, sure of himself, and Sean, a quiet, gentle guy of few wordsboth committed to this nightly trip. Daily my in-house e-mails at the women’s unit, where I’ve been working now for over a year, spurt out namesEd, Mike, Carlos, Kasia, Gypsy, Matt, Sandra, John and others. For some time now I have wanted to know firsthand what the team does nightly. I have wanted to put faces to the names of these people, most of whom I have not met.
We drive onto the median, right down the middle of the tree-lined pathway. Suddenly we stop. Sean tells me about Matt as he makes a cup of hot soup. Up ahead is Matt’s shelter. A cardboard lean-to, covered with plastic, envelops the bench where he sleeps hidden. It’s Pine Street, Matt. How are you doing? calls out Sean. O.K. comes the response. Need anything? Nope. We leave his nightly cup of soup and bag of sandwiches and move on.
Right there, our first stop of the evening pinpoints for me something of the paradox of homeless peoplethe crushing reality of the homeless poor, some like Matt with mental illness, and yet their extraordinary resilience and creativity. And what a place to pitch one’s tent. Right here on Commonwealth Avenue with its trees, covered with tiny flickering lights standing like sentinels straight down the pathway. Sean tells me that in the morning Matt will fold up his tent and walk the city streets.
Swinging around to Arlington Street, we look for Ed, but he’s not there. We check the various church steps in the vicinity. Whenever we see a heap of blankets, someone is huddled underneath the mound. And still I see no faces. I only hear voices and always a Thank you or God bless you.
Then we’re back cruising along Commonwealth Avenue heading toward Arlington, Allston, Kenmore Square and Cambridge. The A.T.M.’s are part of our targeting. We connect with a few men here and there huddled in corners, sleeping, keeping warm. I meet Eduardo. My Spanish comes in handy. I’m able to learn he needs pants, a sweatshirt and a blanket. He’s hungry, so he wants it allsandwich, fruit, cookies, hot chocolate, soup and crackers. He sits up. It’s the first face I see. His eyesfixed, a bit frightened, blearystare upward. His hair is tangled. He needs a shave, but that’s not important now. He’s hungry. In fact he’s ravenous as he rips into the food. Dios te bendiga, he says, and I’m off to join Sean.
Storrow Drive is our next stop. Bruce parks the van and we load a canvas sack with bags of sandwiches. The night has become bitter cold. Patches of snow and ice are still on the sloping grass. Flashlights in hand, Sean and I head toward the water’s edge and under the bridges and the overpass. A shopping cart and mound of blankets catch the corner of my eye as we cross the street and head under the overpass. There we find Sandra. I know her. She sometimes comes in during the daytime for a shower and change of clothes and simply to talk. She doesn’t want anything, doesn’t want to come into the inn with us and doesn’t want us to leave any food. The rats will come, she says. Sean inquires about Bill. She thinks he is farther down.
We continue searching with our flashlights. My 15 years in the barrios of Peru and the Dominican Republic never prepared me for what I see this night. Sean calls out, Pine Street, as he aims his flashlight upward into the niches where the birds nest. Wooden planks connect onto the cement beams on either side. Up there, hidden, homeless men sleep. This is home. Their shopping carts, filled with whatever, are below on the ground. How do they get up there? I ask. They shimmy up that pole, points out Sean. I wonder how they survive, this pushcart army of the homeless, driven by want, alcohol, drugs or mental illness, with inadequate health care, probable malnutrition, dirty and most likely filled with lice and scabies. They build hovels hidden in the most unbelievable places.
My emotions run wild, shifting gear. Pity, sympathy and even a touch of anger give way to feelings of deep compassion. These are not just crazies, drunks, bums. They are human beings with a family somewhere, but definitely with a storya story most likely not told but painfully held deep within their hearts. Most of us just never see these, our brothers and sisters. I’m reminded of Matthew’s Gospel. This people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing and they shut their eyes, so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears and understand with their heart and turn (Mt. 13:15). Yes, a change of heart is needed. Unless we invest more to end homelessness, the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance predicted in February, emergency shelter numbers will only grow and create overcrowding and overflow. And what about those men and women who never make it to the shelters?
We all know affordable housing units are disappearing throughout the city of Boston. Yet we boast of city surpluses and economic prosperity. Choking rents keep Section 8 holders pleading for extensions. Meanwhile, in the words of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, We wait in silent treason until reason is restored. We wait for the season of the Lord.
We meander in and out of alleys between apartment buildings. Bruce and Sean know just where to go. They know who is waiting. One makeshift dwelling hugging the alley wall is home to two men and a woman. We feed all three. Meanwhile, calls keep coming into the van. Bruce filters and processes them.
Nightlife goes on all around us. Buoyant young people stand in long lines along Boylston Street waiting to enter the various clubs. Laughter and music fill the air. In between the lines of restless youths sits Ed, covered in his red sleeping bag and wearing his cardboard sign: No Drugs, No Alcohol! He’s waiting for us, waiting for his hot chocolate and sandwich. You’re new, he says. I introduce myself. We chat. He talks about drugs and young people. Words of wisdom flow from this old man, a wisdom gained not from having studied but from having lived. It is obvious that he and John in his wheelchair around the corner are invisible to these young people out to enjoy themselves this night.
We cover the Esplanade, parts of Beacon Street, Lansdowne Street, where the drug addicts are hustling, and the Fenway. And then we’re back on Commonwealth Avenue heading toward Copley and the big public library. There we find Gypsy sleeping on the air vents. I wake her. Drinking her cup of soup, she finally decides to come into the women’s unit. Her three male companions are no longer with her on the air vents. She’s scared. This spot has memories. Her friend Stuart was recently killed here. It’s not a safe place. Even the homeless have fears. In the van we chat. Gypsy tells me proudly that she did the eulogy at Stuart’s funeral. She’s vulnerable now. This is a first for her, coming into the inn for the night. We see her occasionally in the daytime, when she stops by for a shower and a change of clothes. Despite her 12 years on the streets, tonight she is afraid. Besides, she has an infected leg. How do you tell Gypsy she is a good woman, that God loves herand make her believe it? Her image stays with me long after we drop her off and take an evening break. I need some space alone for a while to gather my thoughts.
After an hour we are on our way again. We change drivers. Sean has a sleeping bag he promised someone. So we retrace part of our route, meeting a few more homeless people here and there. The hours this evening have melted away. It’s almost 4 a.m. Responding to a call, we head for Broadway in South Boston, checking out the A.T.M.’s, but no one is there. In the factory area, amid the garbage and debris, an old beat-up truck sits parked. It has become home for Mike. It is filled with junk. He even has his own cooking area set up right there in fronton three big rocks sits a burned black tea kettle! But tonight he’s not there.
And then we’re in downtown Boston again. We check the subway stations. We check the boutique doorways on Newbury Street, a pretty classy area for the homeless. We find a newcomer in a doorway on Boylston Street. I have seen so much this night. Yet Bruce and Sean tell me it was a quiet night, really. We head back to the Pine Street Inn and unpack the van. The first floor lobby is literally littered with homeless men sleeping on chairs, benches or the floor, all beds taken. It is bitter cold. I am humbled as I realize I have a cup of tea and a warm, cozy bed waiting for me.
I often wonder about God’s multifaceted revelation of himself, and how I allow that to touch me and shape me. I know deep within that it involves dying and rising, letting go and reaching out. It involves conversion, not inertia, paralysis or indifference. It involves not only God’s revelation of himself in the fullness of time, butto paraphrase St. PaulGod’s revelation of himself in the slowness of time. Traveling and sharing the night with Sean and Bruce has certainly brought me to a new standpoint in my own story. Once again my heart has been opened to the staggering ramifications of what it means to be compassionate and caring, to see humanity in all its messiness and in all its beauty. In the quiet drive home to Quincy in the early dawn, I thank God for the experience of this evening. It has been grace and gift. I ask God to bless Sean and Bruce and all the members of the outreach team for the work they do nightly on behalf of the city’s homeless. For myself I pray for the grace of a big heart, open to reality all around me, for the grace to see God in the lives and sufferings of our homeless brothers and sisters. There’s a saying that only those who love rightly, see rightly. I want to see.