Out of the shelters

Out of the shelters

By Derek Hawkins

Kenny Cox spent more than 40 years on the streets before he stayed in a homeless shelter for the first time.

Seven years ago, when Cox was 58, he stayed overnight at the Pine Street Inn one night on Harrison Avenue, Boston’s largest homeless shelter, where he was given a bed, a shower and free breakfast and dinner. Despite the accommodations, which are commodities he rarely enjoys the quick-talking, 65-year-old says he still prefers the streets, and uses shelters only occasionally.

“Sometimes I like it at the shelters,” he said. “But I think it’s better to live out here.”

Last December, Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission identified 6,365 homeless men, women and children in its annual homeless census. Only 1,716 were enrolled in shelters, 484 in residential programs and 745 in transitional housing, the survey found.

There are more than two dozen homeless shelters in Boston. Most offer transitional programs that help the homeless find employment and permanent housing. But those programs do not touch all homeless people. Many homeless people have spent years on the street and have rarely or never used shelters.

Scottie Wait, director of volunteer programs at Pine Street Inn, said homeless people commonly avoid shelters because they desire privacy, fear family separation in shelters that divide men and women, or have mental disorders that impair their judgment.

“Coming to a shelter can be a scary thing,” she said. “Having to follow someone else’s rules – some people aren’t ready to give up that freedom.”

Homeless shelters are generally protective of their clients. Requests for interviews with shelter clients require staff approval and were repeatedly denied for this article.

The majority of the homeless interviewed for this article do not view themselves as people without housing, but as members of a subculture removed from and perpetually misunderstood by mainstream society.

The wondering life

Cox has stayed in most of Boston’s shelters and even qualified for subsidized housing because of disabilities preventing him from working full time; in the end he always returns to the streets.

“It’s in my blood to stay on the streets,” he said. “I come back to the streets because I want to have contact with people at the highest and lowest levels. I can’t live like the rest of them.”

Cox said he generally uses shelters when it is convenient for him, like when he needs a shower, a change of clothes or a new toothbrush. But most nights he said he finds an apartment building with an unlocked front door and sleeps in the hallway.

“I prefer the hallways to shelters because it’s more private,” he said. “And any contagious diseases at shelters that some clients have – you’re not subjected to that either.”

Cox was especially deterred from shelters when he woke up at the Pine Street Inn one night covered in tiny sores. He was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where doctors performed a biopsy that showed he was bitten head to toe by bedbugs, Cox said.

Wait said she was unable to comment on this issue to the press.

Still, Cox said he sometimes returns to Pine Street Inn and other shelters for the sense of community he feels there.

“There are hundreds of people there,” he said. “I need that atmosphere.”

Cox’s hardships began when he was a child. The son of a mentally disabled mother and an often-absent father, Cox said he was placed in the custody of the Department of Youth Services when he was nine years old. He said by the time he was a teenager he “took fierce to the streets.”

“That’s where I’ve been ever since,” he said.

The fact that Cox has been homeless since he was an adolescent makes him unique in the homeless community. According to a report by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, most homeless attribute their situation to a bad decision or a series of mistakes made later in life, when it is tougher to start over. A vast majority of homeless nationwide only live on the streets temporarily or enter transitional programs for the short term, according to the study.

Nationally, about 10 percent of the homeless population is described as the “chronic homeless.” In Boston, which has the third-highest homelessness rate among major U.S. cities and counties, that figure is 17 percent, according to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty.

A forced homeless lifestyle

A man named Freeman, who requested his last name not be given, collects change in Harvard Square to buy food and cigarettes. He lost his job in 1998 and has been unemployed and homeless ever since.

A 53-year-old North Carolina native, Freeman still speaks with a soft southern accent although he has lived in Massachusetts for 35 years. He moved to Boston with his family in 1971 and found a job working in the shipping and receiving department of a curtain factory in South Boston.

Freeman said he worked at the curtain factory until the owner sold it to a developer in 1998. The new owner shut down the factory, putting all of its employees out of work and Freeman on the streets.

Unable to pay rent on his two-bedroom apartment in Fields Corner, Freeman was evicted, which left him little choice but to start living in shelters, he said.

He spent the winter collecting bottles for cash and “panhandling” during the day, while sleeping and eating at either Pine Street Inn or the Long Island Shelter, a shelter in Boston’s South End.

But by the spring of 1999, Freeman stopped staying in shelters.

“I just wasn’t really comfortable in shelters anymore,” he said. “I was always stressed, always worried about my stuff being stolen. The people were nice, but I couldn’t stay.”

One morning at the Long Island Shelter, Freeman left his false teeth on a sink in the bathroom while showering. When he stepped out of the shower his false teeth were gone. For Freeman, that was the moment he knew it was time to return to the streets.

Freeman spent the last seven years migrating between public spaces, friends’ houses and his aunt’s apartment in Dorchester where he is allowed to stay for $50 per week. He is currently seeking transitional housing.

And he is not the only one affected by his own bad fortunes. He has a 14- or 15-year-old daughter he said is living in a foster home somewhere in the city. After he finds housing, Freeman said his goal is to find his daughter and open a savings account for her, where he plans to deposit $10 every week until she turns 18.

A common home

Unlike Freeman and Cox, who share a mild distrust of shelters, some homeless view shelters and transitional programs with extreme skepticism, even contempt.

Susan Baker Jones has been homeless for six years, and can’t quickly recall the last time she stayed in a shelter. She spends most of her time in Boston Common, where she sleeps in the grassy areas near the State House.

“I sleep on the streets because shelters are very abusive and degrading to us,” she said. “People there steal your clothes, they steal your money, they try to sell you drugs. Most of us feel safer out here.”

Wait said she was unable to comment on this issue to the press.

Jones, 46, said as a woman she feels especially vulnerable. She lamented that Boston has only three shelters for women – Pine Street Women’s Inn, Rosie’s Place and Sancta Maria – and said she feels more protected when she is with her friends on the street.

“I’d rather stay on a stranger’s blanket than in a shelter,” she said. “I feel safer here where I know people will help me.”

Jones’ friend Patrick Conway, who was with Jones in the Boston Common on a recent Saturday, agreed.

“Shelters – they treat you like a statistic,” he said. “They don’t treat us like human beings. We don’t find compassion there.”

Conway became homeless after family tragedy forced him to reconsider the path of his life.

Thirteen years ago, Conway lost his wife, 44, and daughter, 21, to an accident caused by a drunk driver.

“I was a workaholic, and all they wanted was to spend more time with me,” he said.

Now Conway, 55, said he tries to make up for what he thinks were his shortcomings by protecting his friends on the streets.

“I give back now,” he said. “I pay more attention to these people than I did to my family. In a way I chose the streets. It’s a harder life but it made me better.”

Conway and Jones said they understand why some homeless want to seek shelter or housing, and resent that many are unable to because they have substance addictions or criminal backgrounds.

Billy Gaskell, who Conway described as “the man who showed me how to survive,” said it was hypocritical to offer subsidized housing programs to the homeless. He said such programs – like Section 8, a type of Federal housing formally called the Housing Choice Voucher Program – deny applicants with criminal records or addiction disorders. Northeastern sponsors Section 8 housing in previously leased properties on Hemenway Street.

“They build all these shelters and have all these programs, but when we want to get in we can’t because of our past,” said Gaskell, who has been homeless for 46 years.

Gaskell said he knew he would not be allowed to live in transition housing due to his record. “I’m stuck on the streets, but I make the best of it, and I’d die for my friends out here,” he said.

A chance to go back

Barbara Basso, a friend of Jones, Conway and Gaskell, is viewed as a success in the community of homeless she associates herself with.

Basso and her husband left Florida, their home state, and came to Boston seven years ago to find cheaper medical assistance. Basso said she needed brain surgery to remove a metal plate in her head that her body rejected.

After spending several years on the streets, Basso and her husband, known as “the Sandman,” received subsidized housing in Boston’s North End.

But Basso said the application process was painstaking, and took them nearly three years to complete. And even in Massachusetts, Basso’s medical expenses forced the couple to live on the streets, where they remained for the three years they were filling out the application for subsidized housing.

“Not being able to pay your bills because of your medical condition – imagine that,” Basso said. “We didn’t sign up for this – sleeping in doorways, on benches, in markets. It just happened. We didn’t ask for it.”

Despite their situation, Basso and her husband found comfort on the streets. Like others, they kept their distance from shelters except in rare cases, like when the weather was harsh. Otherwise, she spent most nights in the Boston Common with their “family,” a group of homeless men and women who reside in the area near Park Street.

“There’s lots of nonsense you’ve got to go through at shelters, but when you need to, you overlook it,” Basso said. “Besides, I have better friends out here. These are my children.”

Almost three years ago, Basso began to seek subsidized housing for herself and her husband. She described the application process as “agonizing,” and said she was constantly worried she would be turned down.

“It’s so much work – it’s intimidating,” she said. “There’s a lot of travel involved, and it’s always meeting after meeting. And if you don’t show up, they figure you don’t want it enough, and you start all over.”

In early summer, Basso and the Sandman finally received housing.

They now live in a one-bedroom apartment in the North End where they pay 30 percent of their income for rent.

Basso said when the couple moved into the apartment, the only furniture they had was two milk crates and a pile of blankets. But Basso spent the summer sifting through trash, collecting appliances, chairs, tables and artwork for her new home.

“Now I hardly have room for anything, and I didn’t spend a dime,” she said.

Although she has a new, fully furnished place to live, Basso said she still feels a strong attachment to the streets.

“It’s very hard to go into housing or even a shelter when you’ve been here so long,” she said. “You don’t know how to get off the streets because your buddies are still there.”

Basso calls herself the “den mother” of the group of homeless men and women who regularly sleep in Boston Common, and checks everyday to make sure all her friends have food, clothes and blankets.

“I miss my kids but I can’t go back to what they’re doing,” she said. “I want to bring them back with me but I can’t. You still want to connect but you don’t know how anymore.”

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