“One guy I know just walked into a store, put some sneakers on his feet, and walked right out so he would get arrested.”
It’s 9pm on Saturday, and Charles, who is camped out in South Station for the brutal cold snap, is explaining the extremes some people he knows have resorted to so they can stay alive without relying on the city’s designated shelters.
“At least if you’re locked up at Nashua Street, you get three hots and a cot.”
Charles, who regulars around here know as D, has played a leadership role in these atypically stormy days. Many of his friends who also generally stay in the vicinity of Summer Street, often curling up on Dewey Square, have been scared off by the hundreds of new people seeking refuge in South Station since last Thursday.
“I don’t want to go to Pine Street, I don’t want to be in a shelter,” D says. The city shelter downtown, he adds, doesn’t allow people to bring in their own blankets. While the close proximity to individuals with mental health issues can cause anxiety. “I got my own problems,” he says. “I don’t need everybody else’s.”
D has been living inside and around the area of South Station for three years. His story is unique, they all are, but follows many of the same horrific contours that others in comparable binds ofen endure. At 50 years old, he’s wrestled with the justice system and a drinking problem. At one point he was working on a trash route, but mangled his knee beyond anything that he could possibly afford to heal.
“It’s really degrading,” he says about living in the open. “I’m not a bad person. My mother died. My sister has my daughter. I think she’s sleeping on the couch there. My daughter’s mother died when she was three. It’s miserable man.”
Thanks to the help of volunteers from Quincy C.O.P.E., a bootstrap volunteer group whose members come from as far away as Cape Cod to help out in places where municipal services don’t reach, D says he is close to getting on his feet. It’s the closest he has been to rehabilitation since the demolition of the bridge to Long Island in 2014, where he often spent the evening and met counselors. D is on a list for starter housing now, and takes pride in his clean appearance. For the past week, however, the main thing on his mind—and on the mind of everyone around him—has been survival.
“When we came here on Thursday, they had nothing,” says Jennifer, a vol from Quincy C.O.P.E. “The mayor said that South Station was going to stay open 24-7, so they all came here. No blankets, no food, no winter gear. Three of us have been able to bring food every night since then, and we passed out more than 150 blankets that first night alone.”
It’s barely warmer inside the commuter rail and Amtrak terminal than it is in the tundra. Every time one of the many automatic doors slides open, wind gusts rip through, stinging any skin that’s left exposed and serving as a punishing reminder of what is in store outside. Several bundled people sit in chairs, slumping over metal tables with their coats or blankets covering their heads. Some don’t move for hours.
While those who often crash around these parts have difficult but long-established relationships with the hired guards and MBTA police who patrol South Station, some say the increasing numbers now relying on the building has led to more tension than usual. Certain measures taken appear to be unnecessary, if not arbitrary acts of cruelty, such as blocking outlets so that people can’t charge phones, barricading off the warmest nooks, and enforcing a strict blanket ban on freezing nights. As television journalists reported that New England Patriots fans donated comforters for homeless people, transit cops disposed of every single blanket that the folks from Quincy C.O.P.E. and others handed out inside South Station.
“They say this is a shelter this week,” D says. “If it’s a shelter, where are the mats? Why do they shut off the heat at night?”
In these most depressing of imaginable circumstances, there are also random acts of kindness, like the McDonald’s cards and warm boxes of Joe that are occasionally gifted by compassionate commuters. And while some who have sought shelter in the terminal are wrapped from head to toe and prefer sitting alone with their heads tucked deep between their legs, others socialize and hang around at tables. For a few minutes on Saturday, a spontaneous dance party even breaks out.
Like the C.O.P.E. crew, David comes here on his own to help fill voids. He says his father died when he was young, and he knows how easy it is to wind up on the street. On Friday, David tried to bring a young pregnant woman to a shelter in the South End, but she wound up coming back to the terminal. She says that she is newly homeless and nomadic, and is reluctant to surrender all of her belongings upon entry as required.
Also on hand to assist is Dan the Bagel Man, who wheels a baggage cart stacked up with milk crates filled with pastries. Boston’s long time grassroots Grubhub for the downtrodden and hungry, Dan has been hustling overtime hours in tandem with the folks from Quincy C.O.P.E. since last week.
“I got all this from the Starbucks on Newbury Street,” Dan says. The group that he helps run, Boston Food for Activists, rescues and recycles leftovers from restaurants and grocery stores all over Cambridge and the Hub. “I also have a couple pizzas that I got from Crazy Dough’s inside the Transportation Building.”
Dan walks past the tracks along the open platform and enters the bus terminal side of South Station, where there are about 30 additional people who have been spending nights. It’s warmer and much quieter than over by the trains, reportedly because they “do not tolerate the riff raff,” as one person explains.
I approach some squatters by the food concession to ask what it’s like to spend time in this wing of the complex. One explains that it is possible to purchase a round-trip ticket for a bus with no specified departure date, which technically enables you to wait around for up to a year. Even then, however, he says you are likely to be shown the door after a number of days.
William, who relies on a wheelchair due to suffering from chronic arthritis, takes a break from reading a Neil Gaiman novel to break down the quagmire that many of those grappling with homelessness face in this city—especially with snow drifts rendering the alleyways and sidewalks uninhabitable.
“For some people, I’m sure shelters are great,” William says. “But for me, shelters are like prison. You spend half your day looking for a bed. And what grown person should have their bags searched all the time?”
As for the South Station train terminal, William adds, “People don’t know how to get in late at night. That’s not how emergency shelters are supposed to work.
“The way they’re treating us bleeds into the way people are treated as a whole. It’s like India, it’s a caste system. You’re born poor, you stay poor. You end up in here.”