For many who live and work in Boston, the homeless are nuisances to hurry past, an abstract problem someone should do something about, reminders to be thankful for what they have, a threat to property values when they land in the neighborhood.
To the Pine Street Inn staff, they are the people they always were, not defined by the lack of an address.
And these people, like many, struggle — with mental and behavioral disorders, substance abuse issues, joblessness, poverty. But unlike the rest of us with house keys and food in the fridge, they do this without the support system that makes life that much more safe and comfortable. Family or friends who would make sure meds are being taken, appointments are being kept, difficult forms are filled out, and would step in to help if you got sick, laid off or had to deal with a crisis.
Pine Street is the de facto family/friend support system for Boston’s homeless population.
As the Herald’s Stefan Gellar reported, Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of Pine Street Inn sat down with the paper for an editorial board meeting Wednesday. Downie was well-versed in the statistics of homelessness — which demographics stayed homeless the longest, changes over the years, etc. — but she also demonstrated a striking depth of understanding for the lives of Pine Street clients, and the harsh realities they faced.
What do you do when your battle with the bottle or drugs has exhausted your family to the point where reaching out for help is no longer an option and you have no place to go? Or when schizophrenia makes the simple task of filling a prescription or filling out an application for affordable housing completely unmanageable? When you work two minimum wage jobs but still can’t come up with the first and last months’ rent to get an apartment? When your job as a bike pizza delivery person is gone when your bike is totaled, and you can’t afford a new one?
Yes, Pine Street Inn offers food and shelter, but is also about solutions, working with clients to figure out how to get each person into treatment, housing and a support system. Sometimes that can mean tracking down family members to see if a reconciliation is possible. But most of the time, it means matching people with housing — which can be a challenge in Boston.
The 50-year-old nonprofit is redeveloping one of its single-story buildings in Jamaica Plain into a new housing complex with 225 rental units, 100 percent of which would be income-restricted and affordable, and it has other housing sites around the city.
Boston is in better shape than San Francisco — we have so far been spared the devastating housing crisis that’s given rise to the surge in its homeless population, and the increasingly hostile attitude toward those living on the streets.
But prevailing notions of the homeless as “other” help no one.
“If we can’t get beyond the stigma and the idea that these folks are somehow lesser than the rest of us, then we are never going to solve this issue,” said Downie.
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