Letter to the Editor

The homeless: who are they — but more important, who are we?

Dear Editor:

In a recent  edition of The Boston Globe (Nov. 18, 2016) cited successes in finding housing for many of our homeless—and the valiant efforts of compassionate Bostonians who have worked for years on this issue.  Yes, there is more work to be done, but the trajectory is in the right direction.

At a recent community meeting orchestrated by the Beacon Hill Civic Association, Captain Kenneth Wong from the Boston Police Department described the complexities of homelessness and the challenges of finding permanent housing.   He was assisted by Jim Greene of the city’s Emergency Shelter Commission and Kerri Wells, BPS Community Service Officer.  All speakers displayed impressive concern for the people on the streets—and their willingness to work with the community to obtain help for them.  While some in the audience spoke with compassion about how we might help, others clearly saw this issue as a nuisance, which must be removed from our area.

Years ago, before hospitals became large—sometimes dispassionate–corporations, many recognized their role in providing services to the local communities.   As a nursing manager at MGH in the 1970s and 1980s, I witnessed the opening of the White Lobby on frigid nights so that the homeless could find shelter—and hot meals provided by the dietary department.  One staff member took the responsibility one step further and established an “Activities Center” where homeless could congregate in “their” room during the day, while providing services needed by the institution, e.g., serving coffee to visitors, completing mailings, etc.

Those days are long gone; however, as one speaker so articulately stated, we should enlist the leadership and knowledge of our universities and hospitals to help on this issue.  MGH might be able to replicate the activities center or lend its expertise in other ways.  (Remember, we taxpayers pay for “nonprofit” hospitals’ city services.)  Another bright light is the Center Club Day Program with its sanctuary for people with mental illnesses.

As a nurse who has worked with the Commonwealth’s schools and their thousands of homeless students, I believe strongly that each and every one of us can assist in our community.  Here are some of the ways:

Call 911 if there is an unresponsive person on the street.   This may be a matter of life and death.  It is difficult for the lay person to recognize whether the cause is public drunkenness, an opioid overdose, or a medical emergency such as diabetic coma.   In my experience, the EMTs have been enormously helpful.

Use the 311 app to report areas where the homeless congregate.  This gives Jim Greene, Kerri Wells and their staffs information as to where to focus outreach.

Most important, acknowledge the homeless.  Say hello and ask their names, giving your first name also.  These are people who found themselves on the streets through many types of misfortunes.   Yet, even in the middle of the city they are isolated.  I introduced myself to two homeless men today and was greeted with joyous smiles.  One was a veteran who had lost his leg while serving our country.  Do we not owe them a simple greeting?  Is this too difficult?

Reach out to the New England Center and Home for Veterans on Court Street.   They are wonderful neighbors.   We might want to invite the veterans to assist with some of our projects such as decorating for the holidays.  (Of note, they love to receive movie vouchers as a thanks!)  The home also has a Gift-a-Vet Program at Christmas.

In a roundabout way, this leads to the title of this letter.   Yes, homelessness is sad—especially for those experiencing it–but also for those of us who wish it did not exist and want to do something to help.  We on Beacon Hill are still a community of vastly diverse people, each with strengths and weaknesses.  But as a community, it is imperative that we ask ourselves:  Will we be the so-called “wealthy selfies” or “compassionate neighbors”?

In this season of Thanksgiving, may we give thanks for food, warm shelter, friends and family—and our infinite capacity to make life better for the less fortunate in our little corner of the world.  Thank you.

 Anne H. Sheetz


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