The whole time, I was constantly looking for housing, but couldn’t find any. I couldn’t afford the first and last month’s rent.
I’ve spent the last three months at a Boston emergency homeless shelter, in a sleeping bag in a Boston park, couch surfing, and trying to survive the coronavirus pandemic. There are lots of people like me who were told there was no room at the shelter, or got kicked out, or found them too unsafe because of the high rates of COVID-19 infection, drugs and alcohol use, and violence.
I am also in recovery, and in recovery, we share our experiences, our strengths, and our hopes. Here is my story …
I grew up on Long Island, New York with my grandmother, mother and sister. I am a Yankees fan in the middle of Boston.
When I was 13, my grandmother passed away and we moved to Florida where I went to high school. At 19, I was in a head-on collision, and after the accident I couldn’t move. I never felt pain like that before. I received a prescription of a narcotic, oxycodone. Before I realized what it was, I was addicted.
My active addiction led me to Boston, where I have some family. Big Papi and the Red Sox had just won the World Series in 2013, and as a Yankees fan I thought Boston would be the last place I wanted to be. At that time, pills were nearly impossible to find, but heroin was not, and I used in the shadows for years.
After some time, I got clean, and I fell in love. Her name was Monique. We were together for a couple years and really starting to build a life together in Framingham. But days before the holidays in 2018, Monique and I got into an argument and I left the apartment. I didn’t know how much she was mentally struggling, and I still don’t know if she was using before the argument or just after. And I never will….
Monique hadn’t used in almost a year. She wanted to be clean. We were back in contact, but two days later, I found out she had passed from an overdose. She was four to eight weeks pregnant. I was absolutely devastated. There was no funeral, no way for friends or loved ones to pay their respects. It was out of my control.
A few weeks later, I checked myself into a hospital at the suggestion of a friend at Alcoholics Anonymous. He must have seen that I was physically, mentally, and spiritually broken. I left the hospital and my life in Framingham, and came to Boston since nobody here knew my name. I arrived with only what I could carry. This was my fresh start; I followed up with a dual-diagnosis program to work on my mental state as well as my recovery.
The year after Monique passed was both tragic and life changing. I had difficulty keeping a job and an apartment. In the past, I worked as a DJ, a customer service manager, and a dietary aid at a long-term living facility. I even worked as a waiter, and at one of Boston’s most prestigious hospitals scheduling x-rays, CAT scans, MRIs, and mammograms. But after Monique passed, I couldn’t work the way I used to. And that’s what brought me to the Shattuck right before the holidays in 2019, about a year after she passed.
The Shattuck is across the street from the Franklin Park Zoo and normally houses 160 men in bunk beds. Shelter guests need to check in between 3pm and 7pm; if you’re not there by 5pm, they can give your bed away. If you are not there by 7pm, you might not even get a two-inch mat on the floor in the dining area. It depends on who is working or supervising that night.
In the morning, we had to leave by 8am. I always made sure to leave dressed in a shirt, tie, and jacket, ready to look the part for whatever job I might land. It was almost impossible, however, to schedule an afternoon interview, ride the T for an hour-plus, and get back to the shelter between 3pm and 5pm to guarantee a bed.
In February, I took a job in the shelter’s Pine Street Trainee Program in an attempt to better my personal situation. Our tasks included washing the floors in the dining area so we could place two-inch mats there for overflow sleeping capacity. COVID-19 was in Boston by this time, and an emergency shelter isn’t the safest place to be during a pandemic. At the Shattuck, they began to operate at half-capacity or less, but while social distancing measures included keeping an empty bunk between two occupied bunks, many of us still had to share bunks and sleep above and below one another.
When I was there, Shattuck didn’t install new hand-washing stations. There were large bottles of hand sanitizer at the entrance, but shelter guests were not given individual bottles of sanitizer when they left the building. If you left for several hours, public bathrooms were not an option. Back at the shelter, staff were given paper masks, but guests were not. It also became easier to lose your spot. If you were lucky enough to spend the night at a friend’s house or with family, you were often denied reentry.
The whole time, I was constantly looking for housing, but couldn’t find any. I couldn’t afford the first and last month’s rent plus security deposit in a city where apartments go from $1,200 to $4,000 a month. On April 10, I got kicked out of Shattuck because I was smoking tobacco out of what looked like a marijuana pipe in the designated smoking area. I did not try to hide it from shelter staff because I knew I hadn’t broken any rules—there was no marijuana in the pipe. At that point, I had been clean and sober for more than a year.
I called Pine Street several times to find out where I could go, but was forwarded to many extensions that were not answering. For many people dealing with homelessness, limited phone minutes is a reality. This decision to kick me out meant I would lose an emergency shelter bed—not only at Shattuck, but throughout the Pine Street system, from that night until the end of the pandemic.
I was eventually told to go to 112 Southampton Street, a shelter that is run by the Boston Public Health Commission. It has a reputation for heavy substance and alcohol use by the shelter guests, but I’d been to 112 before and during the pandemic. I saw people slouching, drooling on themselves, and falling over, which is an indication that they were high and had just shot up. I left for my own safety and well-being as well as my recovery.
I finally received my $1200 stimulus check, which is not enough for rent and security deposit, but was enough to keep me safe, secure, fed, and healthy for 13 nights. I found cheap places on Priceline.com, moving around each night to save a few dollars. For food, I take it day by day. I use food stamps when I can, but when you’re homeless, you don’t have kitchen privileges to cook, and you definitely can’t use food stamps for takeout. In any case, my money ran out on April 23, and I was back in the park.
On May 7, I finally had a COVID-19 test. Five days later, I was given the results—negative! If I had tested positive, the City of Boston would have given me a bed. But because I tested negative, there was no room for me in a shelter, a dorm, a hotel, or a bed in the Boston Convention Center hospital.
If I had Mayor Walsh sitting in front of me, I would first ask him where the next donated dollars or federal money that comes into the city of Boston will go. I do not understand why people like me, who tested negative, and all the other familiar faces I see of people experiencing homelessness, have not received a hand up out of this pandemic. Wasn’t the purpose of classifying us as chronically homeless to help me and others like me?
Also, if all of the city’s shelters are at half to one-fifth capacity due to COVID-19, where are the people experiencing homelessness in Boston supposed to go safely? Why are people having to sleep on the T in blankets and in parks in the middle of a worldwide pandemic?
Things are tough, and I am currently bouncing between shelters and sober houses to the north and west of Boston. For me, though, the silver lining is that I am clean and sober. I found a way to do Zoom Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day, and try my best to stay in contact with sober people. My recovery is extremely important to me. That is how I feel I can honor the girl I loved.