Homeless test civic patience in Boston & nation FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 3 Feb 1999 18:07:49 -0800 (PST)

FWD  Los Angeles Times - Sunday, January 31, 1999


Social services: City was shocked when six people froze to death last year.
Here and nationwide, street population is growing, and solutions remain

By Elizabeth Mehren, Times Staff Writer

BOSTON--In a city noted for compassion toward the homeless, the deaths came
as an affront. "How could it happen here?" anguished Erik Payne Butler,
president of New England's largest homeless program, the Pine Street Inn,
after six homeless people froze to death in the space of a few uncommonly
mild weeks.

     The deaths in November and December of five men and a woman served as
a reminder that here and across the country, the homeless population is
both increasing and changing. The mayor's annual Dec. 1 census of the
homeless showed that in a

     For the first time, a significant number of young people are moving
directly from foster care to the streets, and the census revealed more
immigrants and ex-inmates. The mentally ill continued to account for a
large portion of the population here, as elsewhere, but a shortage of
affordable housing and a tightening of welfare regulations also are
producing an increase in families on the streets.

Boston Trends Borne Out

      The homeless do not make for an easy head count, but experts say the
Boston trends are borne out across the country. The U.S. Conference of
Mayors recently surveyed 30 major cities and found that 72% experienced an
increase in homelessness last year. Fifty-four percent said the length of
time people remained homeless had increased during the last year.

     What's more, the growth in homelessness has been accompanied in many
cities by impatience about the seeming intractability of the issue,
according to social service agencies. Although Boston is known for its
humane outreach efforts, some cities have turned to near-draconian

     San Francisco--with an estimated homeless population of 16,000, twice
the number of 10 years ago--has joined the ranks of cities that stage
police sweeps to remove homeless people from the streets. This earned San
Francisco a place among the country's top five "mean streets" for the
homeless--along with Atlanta, Tucson, Chicago and New York City--in a
report issued this month by the National Law Center on Homelessness and
Poverty in Washington.

     No agency keeps precise tabs on the number of homeless people who die
each year on the nation's streets. But the death this month in Boston of a
seventh homeless man who perished when his makeshift trailer shelter caught
fire sent officials here into further despair. By contrast, only two people
died on Boston's streets in the previous year.

     Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End
Hunger and Homelessness, said the county coroner's office makes it
difficult to track homeless deaths.

     A recent statistical analysis by the nonprofit Shelter Partnerships
confirmed the widely used "mid-range" figure of 70,000 people on any given
night who are homeless in L.A. County, Erlenbusch homeless people was
printed last year in nine languages, he said, including Armenian. Like
Boston's, Erlenbusch said the homeless population of Los Angeles increased
about 5% last year.

     With their unkempt appearance and antisocial demeanor, homeless
substance abusers such as Kelly, Charles and Wayne--occupying a park bench
within yards of Boston's famous Faneuil Hall--disturb most people and
offend many others. A strong national economy has done nothing to promote
sympathy for the homeless either.

     Even in a community that views homelessness more as a public health
concern than a police problem, "people get tired of hearing about it," said
Dr. Jim O'Connell, a physician who since 1985 has headed Boston's Health
Care for the Homeless.

     "I'm just a doctor looking at this thing," he said. "But when you pick
apart this homelessness issue, it's not really a population but kind of a
prism through which the light of society gets shone: the elderly, the
immigrants, substance abusers, the mentally ill, young people, those
trapped in the welfare system.

     "But when I say that, people say, 'Oh my God, we'll never be able to
change all that.' It seems so vast, and there's no sound bite that captures
this problem."

     The six deaths by freezing jolted a network of providers that has been
hailed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a
national model. Police and business interests collaborate with city
officials and nonprofit groups. O'Connell's free clinic specializes in
health problems of the homeless, such as tuberculosis and gangrene

     "We have a collective objective to have a bed for every homeless
person in the city," Butler said. With the recent addition of 500
"overflow" beds at Pine Street, a landmark structure, that goal has been
attained. A series of halfway houses and other centers devoted to the
homeless spreads throughout the city.

     Still, as many as 250 people per winter night sleep outdoors, mainly
in the downtown business district that bustles by day but grows empty at
night. Like most who live on the streets, the six who died were substance
abusers, lulled apparently by unseasonable days that lingered through
Christmas. All six were familiar to outreach workers who patrol the streets
by van and on foot, night and day.

     "We do the ABCs: 'Everyone OK? Anything you need? What's going on?' "
said Paul Janvier, a counselor with Pine Street's Neighbor program. Janvier
and Linda Curnane, a nurse, canvass the city by foot, checking in nooks and
crannies, on park benches, in alleys.

Deaths Have Made Them Vigilant

     The deaths have made them especially vigilant. Early one recent
morning, they searched for Kelly and Charles by the waterfront in a park
between an expensive hotel and a row of trendy apartments. At the Fleet
Center arena, they stopped to chat with Maurice, a Vietnam veteran with
Nick Nolte looks who is often delusional.

     "Nice to see you," Janvier told Maurice.

     "You're late," Maurice replied. "I've been waiting for you."

     Maurice declined an offer of coffee and assured the team: "I'm doing
all right. I'm glad you're thinking about me."

     Curnane and Janvier were on their way to Government Center when they
finally spotted Kelly and Charles on the bench with Wayne. Wayne was high,
Charles was hugging himself to stay warm and Kelly was joking that she
might try selling a pocketful of condoms that counselors from Pine Street's
night van had given her.

     "It's too cold for sex," she said.

     Soon the park bench trio was wearing new chartreuse hats and heavy
socks supplied by local merchants. Concerned about Charles' badly weathered
skin, Curnane dug further into her backpack and found a tube of
moisturizer. She made a note that Kelly needed new pants, size 8. An
alcoholic since she was 13, 29-year-old Kelly confided she had been so cold
the night before she thought she, too, might freeze to death. She fell
asleep crying, Kelly said.

     Her uncle owns a popular restaurant a few blocks away and regularly
urges his niece to "go home." Out of the question, said Kelly: "I like

     In the tradition of Pine Street, a facility started by activist
priests in 1969, Curnane and Janvier are careful to refer to the men and
women they meet on the streets not as clients, or patients, but as guests.

     "We try to instill in our guests that it is possible to move on and
that they deserve it," Curnane said. "A lot of them don't think they
deserve it."

Julia Child Is Program Mentor

     Provided they are not packing a weapon, a bottle or drug
paraphernalia, those who do find their way to Pine Street or a satellite
shelter are offered substance abuse counseling, detox, health care, housing
referrals and advice on job training. Julia Child is a mentor to a new
on-site program that prepares some guests for food-industry work.

     But the first order of the day--or night, since that is when homeless
shelters kick into action--is a foot wash. Reasoning that the feet of a
homeless person are in some ways the gates to the soul, Pine Street
staffers bathe the feet of their guests.

      The philosophy of his $12-million operation, Butler said, is: "In
order to become homeless, you have to lose a lot of stuff--in many cases,
including any form of ID. We are in the reconnecting business: reconnecting
to employment, housing, health and some sense of being able to live in
connection--in relationships--with other human beings."

     After the sixth death was reported on Christmas Eve, Mayor Tom Menino
called a meeting of police, city officials and shelter providers and issued
an emergency $80,000 authorization to fund a second van to bring supplies
and health services to the homeless. "We are very frustrated with the
increased number of homeless in the city of Boston and by the recent
tragedies," he said.

     His concerns are mirrored around the country, said Julie Wolch, a
geography and urban planning professor at USC. Thanks largely to federal
welfare reform efforts, "cities are increasingly being left holding the
bag. And they don't have the resources to cope with the scale of the
problem in terms of providing the whole service system."

     Dr. Jim, as his patients and colleagues refer to O'Connell, said he
aims for a hands-on approach at Health Care for the Homeless. All his
patients have his beeper number and often call him at strange hours. He
encourages sick street people to come to his clinic; if not, he is back
with his health van each Monday night to treat them in the street.

     O'Connell said he agonizes about national indifference to
homelessness. And yet "it's just been such a difficult problem. No matter
what policy changes we make, it just keeps coming back."


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