Homeless in a pandemic: How do you distance yourself when there’s no place to go?

Jerry (foreground) came to Boston from Puerto Rico six years ago because there is more help to be had in Boston, although “not so much,” he admits. Photo By Luis Edgardo Cotto.

One of the populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus is that of the homeless living in Boston, a city with over 2,000 cases of COVID-19 as of April 7, and more everyday. 

Some of the homeless people I interviewed simply do not expect anything except a life of suffering.

Brooklyn New York native, Josue is worried that he and others will be forced into seclusion, and that it could be a death sentence for them.
Photo by Luis Edgardo Cotto

Others, more experienced, fear the remedy more than the disease. This is the case of Josué, who regrets that a possible forced seclusion of rovers like him is an inevitable death sentence.

Josué was born in Brooklyn, New York, into a Puerto Rican family, so he speaks Puerto Rican Spanish more than decently.  He is one of the 18,471 homeless people who, according to a 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), reside in Massachusetts.

Josué has been on the streets for seven years, where he said he was doomed to be, after falling into drug addiction after being wounded in both legs in a gang-related shooting.

He is one of the few roamers, out of the hundreds that roam the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) building, who seems to maintain some measure of social distancing.

AHOPE (Access, Harm Reduction, Overdose Prevention and Education) provides services in that building.

“I am taking care of myself.  I’m not in the los big corillos (groups). I clean the wound every three hours,” he says, with a protruding abscess on one of his cheeks.

He says that he has stopped going to sleep in the shelters because “you only hear the coughs of others, and now they tell me that it is worse. Everyone is coughing.”

“I’m going to listen to my doctor. I try to sleep around the churches. That is the best. I know one where the priest treats me very well. I am fighting for my life,” he says.

He expresses his regret that the majority of homeless people in Boston (6,203, according to the last specific Census for that population of the city, also from 2019), do not yet know what is happening with the virus nor do most want to find out.

At AHOPE the staff try to inform and educate the homeless: “They tell us, they put up signs, but many don’t read them or ignore them and don’t want to listen, either.”

“None of these people are understanding what we have in front of us. They are acting as if nothing is happening. For now, I can only think of myself,” he says.

Josué would recommend “that everyone stay at home,” although he fears that “martial law is fine for everyone who has a home, but for us it is worse. Martial law is going to kill us. Those with a place to live have a better chance. To us, if they take us to places where we can be safely separated from each other, okay. But that will not happen and they will kill us…It is like when they put us in cells to kill ourselves “.

“I know this is serious because my mom and my dad call me all the time. That’s why I know what is happening. But nobody here is taking it seriously. Here, they only have the path of drugs,” he says woefully.

Josué’s justified apprehension of the homeless shelters is negatively affecting his hygiene: “I like to bathe every day. Now I haven’t been bathing for two days because I didn’t go into a shelter. This has never happened to me in my life. “

Luis says he doesn’t watch TV and doesn’t know much about what’s happening in the world outside his own at the moment. He has survived 15 overdoses, and says that in a life full of suffering, he thinks death may be better: “I have death behind my ears.”
Photo By Luis Edgardo Cotto

Luis, another homeless person I spoke with, is an example of the lack of hope that hangs over the heads and spirits of homeless people. He was born in Waltham, a suburb of the Boston metropolitan area, but grew up in the Cantera neighborhood of Santurce, San Juan. He is 46 years old and has been on the street since 1994.

When he talks about his life, it’s as if he’s reciting a poem:

“I am doing the best I can do, but this life is just suffering. But here we are, as if we were a car without gasoline. We are not going to move anywhere. Because depression and addiction go hand in hand, side by side. Now, I’m not worried about anything. One does not know if it comes or goes. Those of us who are in this situation [of homelessness] know that it is our fault, but one cannot stop like that because, yes, it is not easy and we know that our family is the most affected. 

“It is like playing Russian roulette, but not with one bullet but with four bullets. I have survived 15 overdoses and have tried to rehabilitate myself 25 times, going in and out [of using]. Sometimes I have stopped for two weeks; other times, two months; and sometimes, one or two years. I’m afraid maybe I’m not going to be here tomorrow. I have death behind my ears. 

“Honestly, at the level that I am, I do not know what is happening in the world. I don’t watch television and I sleep there on that corner, or on that one, I think it would be better to be dead than to be alive.  Here is just a lot of suffering. I made a contract with the devil. Only God can save me.”

Then I spoke with Jerry, who was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, 43 years ago and came to Boston six years ago. He says he recognizes that there is more aid here in Boston than in Puerto Rico, “but not so much.”

He complains that those who work in the shelters are usually Haitians who discriminate against Latinos “just for raising their voices a little. And since they have power, they have the job, sometimes they misbehave.  There is not one Puerto Rican working in the shelters. They are all Haitians who throw us out on the street.”

He tells me that he wanders with his partner, who is waiting patiently behind him while he talks to me, and that he has a daughter who is “a very precious baby.”  He says he has more family, but says, “I do not ask anything of them.”

He says that the only extraordinary precautions he has taken for the coronavirus have been:  trying to hoard methadone, “in case something happens to us,” and looking for a bridge to sleep under “with no one around.”

“We are suffering, crazy,” he insists.

But Jerry celebrates the services of AHOPE:  “They give us syringes. In one place they help women. In another, they take you to the detox [rehabilitation center] in a taxi that comes here to pick you up.  Each place is for a different kind of help,” he says looking and pointing at the AHOPE building with a look of pride and apparent admiration.

But at this time, 4:30 in the afternoon on a Friday, the building is closed, and two meters from where we are, in front of the entrance door, behind a partition, a young man unbuckles his belt, takes it off his waist, puts it on his arm, pulls it tight with his teeth, and then punctures himself with a syringe with the other hand. 

Jerry discusses the outbreak of COVID-19, as well as other issues, with a reporter.
Photo By Luis Edgardo Cotto