Very rarely do you come across an entertainer who doesn’t want to talk about some current project, their career, what got them started in the industry or some other topic referring to their time in the spotlight. And with someone like Steve Sweeney, the crowned “King of Boston Comedy,” you know there’s a lot to talk about in regard to his career. But for the Charlestown native, a few more important things need to be discussed, like homelessness and addiction.
Quite honestly, when you are as much of a legend as Sweeney is, you really don’t have to talk about what you’ve done professionally.
“I like to talk about my comedy and stuff like that, but I really just want to talk about homelessness right now,” said Sweeney. For a man who has been in the comedy game since the early 1970s, with a side-splitting acting career to boot, there’s nothing funny about the struggle those in poverty face on a daily basis.
His awareness of homelessness started as a young kid growing up in Charlestown, where he encountered what the neighborhood called “the town wino” and where he helped out at a homeless shelter to assist Vietnam veterans who were coming home. He also helped his mother out at St. Francis House on Boylston Street.
“I’m from the Vietnam war era,” said Sweeney. “A friend of mine got involved when he realized that there were so many veterans coming home and living on the street. … I became involved with the shelter and my mother also worked for the St. Francis House,” he continued. “I can’t really capitalize it, but it can be a very complicated problem, and it’s very individual, but all of these problems are still connected.”
For Sweeney, homelessness isn’t a simple thing. It isn’t a cut and dry judgement call when it comes to the root causes of homelessness. Many things need to be considered.
“In my experience, a huge factor has been addiction,” said Sweeney. “Here’s the thing; addiction may not get them on the streets to begin with, but it sure as hell can keep them there, because addiction takes away from giving all your energy and focus to getting back on your feet,” he continued. “But hey, I’m certainly not judging anyone.”
The University of Massachusetts graduate’s work with homeless veterans has been extensive throughout his life, whether in the form of benefit comedy shows or visiting shelters as a small child. He mentioned the homelessness and poverty facing those returning from military duty as being “absolutely awful.”
“We should be ashamed of ourselves,” said Sweeney. “It’s really hard going over there, being put into a war-zone situation every day, then coming back. It’s even harder to re-adjust to society,” he continued. “It’s just shameful how we’ve handled it.”
Aside from his passion to help those living on the street, Sweeney touched on another major plight ravaging New England: heroin and opiate addiction.
“It’s so tragic, and I think it can be directly linked back to the drug companies,” said Sweeney. “They began over-prescribing Oxycontin, even when they knew the stuff was highly addictive,” he continued. “This epidemic is just awful, and I blame the drug companies. I really do.”
While Sweeney has dedicated his non-comedy life to helping those in need, he feels that in order to look at the problem of homelessness realistically, you need to consider some things right off the bat.
“I don’t think [homelessness] can be remedied or destroyed, but I think it can be reduced,” said Sweeney. “I think there will always be people that are displaced, dealing with addiction, dealing with mental health issues, and then there will be people who just fall through the cracks,” he continued. “The main thing to get people back on their feet is the availability of jobs. But I think a lot of people that you see on the streets are just done with life and have stopped trying to be a part of society.”
Steve Sweeney has worked with his community for a long time. This is in between becoming one of comedy’s biggest personalities thanks to his stand-up sets throughout the country. He has also pursued an acting career in San Francisco, which landed him roles in films such as “Something About Mary” and the Boston Celtics-centered Judd Apatow-produced flick “Celtic Pride.” His dedication and concern for those in need will not simmer down anytime soon.
You can catch Sweeney in his element on Friday, March 4, and Saturday, March 5, at Giggles at Prince Pizzeria on Rt. 1 in Saugus.