The night before Blizzard Juno wallops our city, I’m running around Harvard Square looking for one of our younger vendors, Jon, to make sure he’s OK. The forecast looks scary, and people like our newly elected governor, Charlie Baker, are slinging around words like “historic” and “snowmageddon.”
I find Jon shivering in front of the Qdoba in Harvard Square. He looks scared. Based on conversations I’ve had with him in the past, I know he’s wary of the shelter system. On a less-frigid night, it’s understandable he would rather sleep outside than go to a city-run shelter.
But not tonight.
Some of Boston and Cambridge’s homeless refuse to check into the city’s shelters. Reasons vary, like couples who are afraid they will be separated if one of them checks into the newly built Southampton Street shelter, a men’s-only facility. Women stay at Woods-Mullen, which is being transitioned into a female-only shelter. While I’ve heard conditions have improved dramatically, women and homeless youth are worried about predatory attacks in the city-run shelters.
Many, like Jon, enjoy the freedom of being outdoors. I look at him, hoping he will consider checking into the one place he actually likes: the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter at the Lutheran church on Winthrop Street. As he told reporter Andrew Warburton in our Last Word feature on pg. 16, he “won’t go anywhere else,” he says. “They don’t ask questions except whether you’re sober and if you have drugs on you.”
I begged him to at least go there. He said he would, but he wanted to raise money to get a room instead. I gave him a few bucks and prayed. Jon ended up sleeping outside during the storm.
One of my colleagues warned me from the beginning: “That’s the toughest part about working with the homeless,” he says. “Sometimes all of the resources are there, but they just won’t take them.”
After the storm, I headed to Harvard Square to check on Jon. His milk crate in front of Qdoba was empty. I frantically ran around the square looking for him. As I walked closer to the pit, he emerged from Starbucks. He was OK.
“It was tough,” he recalls, talking about how he weathered the storm. “I was covered in two inches of snow and I ended up checking into the shelter at the Lutheran church last night (Tuesday after the storm). It was great and they fed me. Normally, it’s a lottery for available beds. But they let me stay. I’m lucky.”
I look at him, relieved, and say the same thing he’s said to me when I’ve given him money in the past: “God bless you.” Jon dodged the bullet known as Juno. I held my breath.