A warm van and a helping hand
`HOMELESS? I'll give you homeless,'' said the cabbie to the beat and tick of the windshield wipers. ``All those guys standing around Harvard Square. It makes me sick. It makes me mad. Why can't they go somewhere? All the money in this country, we got no place to put those guys?''Skip to next paragraph
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The cab lurched through the rain-soaked streets of Boston while the driver spoke of his own recent move after a rent increase from $200 to $900 a month. ``Life's hard. Life's no picnic here. But there's goodness in people, you know?''
Indeed, there is.
Whether it is this Boston cabdriver phoning the police about a man huddled on the street corner on the coldest night of the year, or the thousands of volunteers turning out at emergency shelters during holiday times, or the staffs of special outreach programs helping the chronic street people, Americans are responding to the plight of the homeless. (Volunteers aid homeless in New York, Page 3.)
One of this country's most serious and obdurate social issues, homelessness in America continues unabated. Last year cities reported a 25 percent increase in demand for emergency shelter and a 30 percent increase in emergency food assistance, according to the US Conference of Mayors. Estimates range from 250,000 to 2 million people now living on the street or in shelters. While alcoholism and chronic poverty are still the main causes of homelessness, not since the depression have there been so many families and mentally ill people on the street. And with the onset of winter, the situation, particularly in the Northeast cities, is again at its most serious.
``We're talking about ensuring people's survival,'' says Randy Bailey, associate director of Boston's Pine Street Inn, one of the oldest emergency housing shelters in the country. ``That's what it's all about. These people simply need housing.''
In Boston alone emergency housing has increased some 56 percent during the past three years. Nonetheless, the city's 1,500 beds - plus the hundreds crammed into lobbies and day rooms of shelters - do little to stem the tide of Boston's homeless. Estimates range from 2,800 to more than 5,000 people living in the city's shelters, welfare hotels, and on the streets. And the percentage of homeless children now tops 13 percent.
``The question is, how do we provide for those living over heating grates and in doorways,'' Mr. Bailey says. ``So far the police were the only ones dealing with them, going down back alleys just to make sure they were breathing.''
Now, however, a unique pilot project, sponsored by the Pine Street Inn and funded by a special state Welfare Department grant, is helping reach Boston's hard-core homeless - the more than 700 men and women who spend every night curled on doorsteps, sprawled on fire escapes, or huddled in abandoned buildings.
Sometimes in pairs or small groups, but most often alone with only an empty liquor bottle at their side, these chronic homeless - many of whom have lived on the street for nearly two decades - have long been beyond the reach of most traditional shelter facilities. But now the Pine Street rescue project, a specially equipped van patrolling the streets every night from mid-October through mid-April, is providing assistance, in the form of food, clothing, and the offer of a ride to shelter.
While Boston, like many Northern cities, sponsors an emergency ``cold-weather services van'' for the homeless during the winter's most bitter nights, the Pine Street rescue project is at present the only one of its kind operating regularly in the Northeast.
``This kind of project was long overdue,'' says Bob Webber, a longtime Pine Street employee and supervisor of the rescue project. ``No one was doing anything like this except the police. Now we're the ones they call.''