Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Community & Isolation at the Holidays

A couple of weeks ago, I had two remarkable and different experiences within 48 hours related to homelessness. The first brought a profound sense of community, the other, a profound sense of isolation.

My community experience took place in the Regent Theatre down the street from where I grew up. My rock and roll band had reunited (after 12 years, 7 collective children and, for some of us, serious hair loss) to play a benefit concert to help end homelessness. For me, it was a once in a lifetime experience: playing the music I love, with great friends, for a cause I believe deeply in, in a theater filled with family and old and new friends. My favorite teacher was even there in the front row! Throw in the connective power of music in the mix and, for me, the night became transcendent. It was a deep sense of connection in the warm theater, protected from the December winds outside, singing songs to welcome the holiday season.

Less than 48 hours later, I joined almost 300 people as part of the City of Boston’s Homeless Census run every year in December by Jim Greene of Mayor Menino’s Emergency Shelter Commission. It was very cold and late. We started at 9pm and many teams worked past midnight. The goal was to do an exhaustive count on one night and discover what services homeless people needed, whether they were veterans, and if they wanted to come in for the night (most refused) or maybe get an extra blanket.

I was part of the team that went with the State Police. The officers knew particular spots among the underbelly of the highways, amidst steel girders, cement overpasses, and carbon monoxide where homeless people stayed every night. Most people—like me—never dreamed of going to these spots, never mind sleeping and living there.

The first stop was under an overpass of Route 93, a major highway through the city of Boston. The police dropped us off, then stayed back as our team of 5 looked for people and called out, “Mayor’s Office for the Homeless Census, anyone here? We’re just counting folks and seeing if anyone needs services tonight.” Cars raced by on the highway near us. It was pitch black and cold. Seeing no one, I was ready to leave for the next spot when someone found Larry. Larry was up under the overpass tucked in an opening where no one could see him, in the dark, bundled up in two coats, a worn hat and gloves. When he realized he wasn’t in trouble, he opened up, told us some of his story. He didn’t like the shelters because they reminded him of prison. He had an ex-wife and kids who were doing fine but he hadn’t seen them in a while. We recorded some other details (no names on this census) and as we started to leave he stopped us. “How were your Thanksgivings?” “Fine,” one of us said. Larry said: “Mine was real good. I had 3 meals at St. Francis House, they even took my picture for the paper.” He was personable and articulate and eventually we had to go as our night was just starting. But what struck me was how isolated he was. Cut off from any social or physical nourishment.

I had been on such a high for 2 days – this sense of connection from the concert, a benefit for homelessness – and now I was reminded in the most direct way what the benefit was for.

We hear about mass foreclosures and layoffs and we wonder where people already on the edge go. Often they are so well hidden it’s easy to forget them, literally tucked away under the roads we speed over. In the dark. In the cold. Alone.

I realize too that despite some great strides in addressing homelessness, we have to do more and we have to do better.

Can you help Give US Your Poor in our efforts to do better with a donation, or host a house party with our help? You can make an online donation here.

Thank you for your support. Wishing you and your loved ones a happy and healthy New Year!

My best, John

Photo is "Highway" by lj lindhurst used with permission.

No comments: