Street Logic: an outreach worker’s fictionalized account of street homelessness in Boston

Street Logic, by Steve Sundberg, is a reality based novel. It is a fictionalized account of the author’s own experiences as an outreach worker to homeless men and women who somehow survive, for a while at least, on the streets of Boston.

While we’ve all heard that wonderful song about leaving your heart in San Francisco, like most people who come from the Boston area, I left my heart there when I moved away years ago.

I know the city well; I grew up in its suburbs and went to college there.

People raised in the area have a fierce independence of spirit and a strength and elegance of character that I have never seen anywhere else. They are resourceful and accomplished people.

New York City’s energy seems to be mostly about generating money, entertainment, news and gossip; in Boston, by contrast, the city’s energy is directed towards generating ideas, truly great ideas, creative medical treatments, dynamic leaders, cutting-edge technology and fresh solutions.

Boston is home to many of the most prestigious universities and hospitals in the world and to some of our finest sports teams and museums. It is the location of one of the richest fishing grounds anywhere on earth and it gave birth to many of our nation’s legendary political leaders.

So I must admit up front: it was with overwhelming sadness that I read Street Logic.

Why is it that human beings have to shiver and suffer in a city characterized by so much intellectual strength, power and greatness, living underneath the beautiful bridges that traverse the Charles River, on which such great campuses as Harvard University and MIT are located?

Why it is that dumpster diving coexists adjacent to world class doctors and hospitals, renowned restaurants and top research programs, in spite of the city’s enlightened social values and ideals?

Located on the ocean near where the Pilgrims first landed in New England, Boston is our nation’s birthplace, our cherished democracy’s “cradle of liberty,” home to our Freedom Trail.

It’s all about freedom in Boston and above all else, homeless people want to be free too.

They want to be free of unreasonable rules, religious requirements, expectations, continuous demands and unending intrusions upon their daily lives. This is what it really means to be free.

All across this country, just as the characters in Street Logic have done, thousands of struggling homeless people have chosen the freedom of life on the streets over the option of shelter.

This does not mean that any of them want to be homeless: they just want to be free.

Like the rest of us, homeless people also want to be treated with courtesy, dignity and respect.

Many of them would rather live and die on the streets than be intimidated into forced compliance with attendance at undesired but mandated programs by ongoing threats of eviction issued by sometimes overbearing “case managers” giving little regard to their clients’ input or readiness.

Did you know that in shelters all across our country:

* It’s estimated that 40% of chronically homeless individuals have a traumatic brain injury and that many others have life-threatening, untreated diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes as well as untreated psychiatric disabilities and addictions?
* It’s not unusual for shelters to require disabled, disheveled, exhausted, chronically homeless individuals to leave daily by 7:00 AM, carrying all of their belongings with them, sick or not, in every kind of weather condition, to go out and “look for work?”
* It’s not unusual for 150 people to be crammed cot-to-cot in a huge room where coughing, snoring, crying and sneezing keep people awake and serve to rapidly spread illnesses?
* It’s not unusual for incarcerated prison inmates to be discharged directly into homeless shelters where it’s also not unusual for some of the staff to be poorly trained volunteers?
* It’s not unusual for young children, especially sons, to be separated from their mothers?

We cannot continue to simply “manage” homelessness in this inhumane manner. In so many respects, we treat homeless animals in this country better than we do homeless human beings.

In a recent email message, Street Logic author Steve Sundberg wrote to me, “My goal was to alert people to the hard core cases, the ones who don’t want to “go in.” He has achieved exactly that: this book is an expression of the daily trauma of chronic homelessness and the intense frustration of very caring outreach workers limited by having so few acceptable options to offer.

It is in Sundberg’s humanizing portrayal of the indomitable spirit inherent in his fascinating homeless characters that we come to understand the issues. You will meet people like:

* Desert Storm veteran Frank Murphy and his bruised, beaten, alcoholic girlfriend Rose Sullivan who hang out behind the BPL, the Boston Public Library. Frank doesn’t want to hear results of his HIV test and declined treatment for hepatitis saying he was too tired to go to the hospital. He also discourages Rose from entering an alcohol sobriety program.

* Sylvia Tompkins, a black woman in her sixties described as personable but “street crazy” from so many years of living under the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge.

* A woman named Star who sits on neatly folded blankets on high end Newbury Street, begging for spare change. When asked if she wanted something to eat, she requested a double caramel latte and a slice of chocolate cake and screamed obscenities as she vehemently rejected an outreach worker’s offer of coffee, juice and a bagel instead.

* Tony Ruffo, a fisherman who sleeps under a pine tree behind a bank. He’s suffering from toxic levels of alcohol in his system but claims that vodka is the only thing keeping him alive after seven years of life on the street. In below zero weather along the waterfront, covered in snow, he refused to “go in” until told that the Mayor of Boston had declared a cold emergency and was on an outreach worker’s cell phone to order him into a shelter.

* A woman living along a chain link fence by a pizza shop who also refused to “go in” out of the cold unless the outreach worker would pay her overdue apartment rent.

* Jimmie Irons, a man is in his early thirties but who looks to be in his fifties and who has an injury to his ankle. When asked if he wanted help, he replied through the few broken teeth remaining in his diseased gums “Ain’t nobody out here wants that kind of help. Not the kind you people are dishing out.”

The inevitable result of not wanting to accept “…that kind of help” comes into clear focus when outreach workers arrive to check up on an individual who has been living along the Charles River. Noticing a strong stench, they follow it and find a homeless woman dead under a pile of blankets, still holding a note in her hands, written in pencil, which contained her final message.

On one side, it read “Nothing solid to sit on but smoke;” the other side contained these two words written in capital letters: “DO DOMETHING.”

Writing Street Logic was clearly Steve Sundberg’s commitment to “Do something.”

It is my hope that readers of Street Logic will be motivated and inspired to “Do something” too.

It is past time for the greatest nation on earth to address the needs of its most vulnerable citizens. It is not reasonable to expect exhausted, disabled, severely compromised homeless individuals to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” with unacceptable options and few to no resources.

We need to provide more housing options but most of all, we need to offer more humane, client-centered, supportive services to homeless people based upon a client’s readiness to receive them and also to acknowledge, honor and respect his/ her inherent personal dignity as a human being.

If we do not, those who cannot or will not comply with overly demanding timetables and overly strict requirements will continue to be summarily evicted from shelters without due process or will choose on their own to return to the hard and harsh freedom of life and death on the street.

Originally published by Spare Change News © www.streetnewsservice.org

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