An Ohio volunteer’s perspective on Boston homelessness

Jimmy Longo and his fellow “Buck-I-Serve” volunteers. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Longo

Growing up in Marion, Ohio—population 36,772—I never really saw homelessness in my 21 years of life. I never saw hordes of people without homes, without warm food or access to running water, without vital hygiene products— without hope.

And then I visited Boston.

I’m a history and communications student at Ohio State University, and after finals in December I came to Boston with 10 other people to volunteer at St. Francis House and the Daily Table in Dorchester, a grocery store that operates on the principles of eliminating hunger and food insecurity.

The trip was arranged through Buck-I-Serv, an alternative student volunteer program through Ohio State that provides trips to places all over the United States and around the world.

I chose Boston because although I grew up in Ohio, my dad grew up south of Boston in Putnam, Connecticut. He graduated from Boston University in 1985 and years later settled down in Ohio with my mother. Even though I’m a product of the Buckeye State, my dad raised me with an affinity for Boston and for New England as a whole.

I was raised on the idea that Boston was this safe haven—this invincible destination for which I grew an unfathomable love. Boston is an amazing place, filled with amazing people, but I had never considered the idea that Boston could have shelters serving hundreds of homeless men and women every single day until I applied for the program with Buck-I-Serv.

I chose to come to Boston not only to serve and to volunteer but also because I needed to see this other side of the city.

I came to Boston and served for four days at St. Francis House and the Daily Table, taking in all that I could during the short stay. Walking from the church on the hill behind the statehouse each morning, I still remember the cyclical flow of people in and out of Dunkin’ Donuts, the cold, salty air that hit me in the face, and seemingly always seeing a couple of familiar faces of people I’d served.

On my first day at St. Francis House, I was upstairs on the fourth floor in the clothing room, helping other volunteers pick out items to help homeless individuals endure the New England winter.

After helping out for a couple of hours, I met a man named Reggie, who seemed to be around my age. He needed, and was eligible for, just about everything on the list that St. Francis House could provide: socks, long johns, underwear, t-shirts, winter clothes—you name it, Reggie needed it.

For some reason, Reggie and I connected. As I was gathering things for him, I came across a Celtics tee and figured he’d enjoy getting that as the majority of individuals receiving clothes got plain T-shirts, not allowing for a lot of self-expression.

Reggie was overjoyed at my selection, and after only a couple of hours, I’d connected with someone, and it felt like I was making a difference.

Later on, I saw Reggie wearing the fresh change of jeans we’d found him, the new zip-up hoodie he was provided with and the green Celtics shirt pulled over the top. A small gesture had meant so much for someone with so little.

After working in the clothing room that Monday, I worked in the kitchen the rest of the week, preparing and serving meals.  

The most mind-boggling thing to me was just how appreciative people were if I gave them more salad or snuck them an extra couple of bananas. That was just one example of many such incidents throughout the trip. Those days were also spent mingling and talking with the clothing and kitchen staff and those seeking refuge while serving them lunch, hearing their stories and sharing mine as well.

I loved the feeling.

Boston isn’t invincible—it has its problems just like any other city. But Boston has people and places that outshine that darkness, that fight back for those trying to get back on their feet and value the way they view themselves in society again.

The people that run St. Francis House deserve a world of credit for operating a shelter that provides such sizeable support for Boston’s homeless.

Visit St. Francis’ website for volunteer opportunities, or consider one of the many other shelters throughout the city.

If you have time, give it. If you have good intentions and a heart for service, share them. It does not take much to make a difference in a life.

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