This essay was written for and is available on the OPPeace website (www.oppeace.org) — the cyber home of the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
Sr. Blaise is threading our car through the narrow streets of Mission Hill like an embroidery needle through canvas, and inside the car her story weaves just as smoothly. Sr. Pat is next to her up front, and in the back, three discerners side by side are hanging on her every word: LaKesha, Helen, and I.
This has been a ride through the history of the Pine Street Inn – the grandest undertaking in all of New England to combat homelessness in Boston – and through the history of what caused it into existence: homelessness itself. Time is short, and short must be the story, so Sr. Blaise, who had devoted 30 years of her life to it, has given us only the highlights. She’s talked about the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill that flooded the streets with young homeless people in the 70’s. The gentrification that displaced thousands of single-room occupants in the 80’s and the funding cuts that closed half-way houses. The veterans who make up a third of all the homeless in the city. She’s pointed out the age-steeped buildings in South End where it all started and where to this day 1,500 people can find shelter every night, where 3,000 meals a day feed the hungry, and where the homeless population of Boston is offered health care, job training, and a chance to start again, to try for a settled, meaningful, or better life.
This wasn’t enough to educate us. Only enough to start our own inquiry. Enough to make our hearts ache. And now she is telling us about a different approach to homelessness: not shelter but permanent housing. “Housing First” approach does not wait for people to pull their lives together – for sobriety or employment – before they can get housing. In the words of Sr. Blaise, it gives people a place to live and “puts services around them.” Case workers like Sr. Blaise anticipated a nightmare at first, but here we are, it’s been a few years, and a great majority of “housing first” residents are doing very well, including the house where Sr. Blaise works on Parker Hill Avenue.
We park in a tiny and surprisingly cozy back yard, with a table and chairs in a gazebo-like enclosure, and go on a tour. There wouldn’t be much to show inside – 19 residential rooms, two kitchens, a common area, laundry – except that every detail here breathes with pride, achievement, and care. A little in-house library, a couple of tables with cushiony chairs where residents gather… On the third floor landing, Sr. Blaise stops by a lemon tree in a large pot, bathed in spectacular sunlight, and her hand contours the branches as if she were stroking a beloved pet. Her face is beaming. So does the face of a resident who invites us into his room to see Tiger, everyone’s favorite cat.
“Five years pass, a community forms,” says Sr. Blaise and shows us trash bins in immaculate order, taken care of by one of the men in the house. Someone keeps up with the front porch. Another sweeps up the back every day, though nothing is required. Sr. Blaise moves through the space nodding right and left, knocking on doors and straightening loose things. This is love. Her miniscule office is on the second floor – not in the lobby, where it was originally designed – so she can be in the middle of the house, within reach of everyone. Like its beating heart.
Later, Helen will write to me, “Her very presence brings forth community spirit among those living here. She helps them interact with one another but allows all people to have their freedom. To me, it’s all about making the homeless feel at home.” And LaKesha will say, “The smile on Sister’s face extends out to the residents! It seems so joyful!”
I suppose, one treasure of our tour was a reminder most of us occasionally cherish of how a house is different from a home. Sr. Blaise doesn’t wax poetic about it. She is terse and to the point. “This sums it up for me,” she says. “Everybody has a story.”
The people who live on Parker Hill Av have their stories; they ended up there by various paths and struggle with various hardships. But one thing they are no longer: homeless. Because someone saw them for the persons they were and brought them together and helped them see each other. And they made a home.