Voices From The Streets: City’s Homeless Prepare For Upcoming Winter

Between the Copley Square T station and the Old South Church, you’ll often find a bearded man in a Red Sox cap holding a cardboard sign that reads: “Listen folks, I just need some help until I can get some work.” This man, James Tacchio, is one of the many people displaced after the closing of the city’s largest shelter in October of last year.

The closure of the Long Island Shelter, which housed up to 600 people in the coldest months, occurred after a state inspection found that the 64-year-old Long Island Bridge was unsafe for vehicles to cross, cutting off access to the island. The decision to close the bridge, though abrupt, was not entirely surprising, as it had been neglected and deteriorating over the years.

“The Long Island Shelter was a refuge for us, and it’s a shame that it had to go,” Tacchio said. He noted that in addition to the loss of 450 beds, people also lost their spots in recovery and addiction treatment programs provided on the island.

In response to the closure, the city quickly set up temporary shelters and, in June of this year, opened a new shelter on Southampton St., which holds over 400 nightly guests at full capacity.

“The only way to really fix this is to get to the root of the problem,” Tacchio said, still flashing his cardboard sign as the sun set over Boylston St. “Right now, we have nowhere to go, so we’re flooding the streets. What the hell else are we going to do?”

Tacchio’s friend Danny, sitting on a crate nearby, nodded in agreement. Danny, a tall, middle-aged man often found donning a beanie, is also a familiar face in the square, where a community of people without homes has developed around the churches and the public library.

Churches are instrumental in providing programs, food, and support for the homeless, especially during the winter months. Churches do not allow people to sleep inside overnight, however. That task is reserved for the shelters, which grow increasingly busy as winter nears.

“If you don’t get there early enough, you’re screwed,” Tacchio said. “Pine Street is actually pretty good about that, but once it starts getting cold, you’re going to have to get there at 3 o’clock.”

Frank Flaherty, a regular on Boylston St. and Tacchio’s close friend, believes shelters should be more selective in terms of whom they admit, rather than operating on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“They should prioritize a regular guy who goes to work every day over an alcoholic like me,” Flaherty said, emphasizing that there are a surprising number of homeless people with regular jobs. “I’d sleep in the alleyway outside so that this guy who has work the next morning has a place to shower and rest at night.”

At the Pine Street Inn mens’ shelter on Harrison Ave., men poured in from the street as the evening progressed, seeking refuge for the night. The men are searched, screened, and given admission to the shelter, which offers beds and lockers on a first-come, first-serve basis. Some of the men are regulars, and greet the director, while others are newcomers.

“With the severe weather and closing of the Long Island Shelter, last winter was the most challenging we have ever had in Boston, and we were able to get through it without any deaths or serious injuries,” said Barbara Trevisan, spokeswoman for the Pine Street Inn. “As this winter approaches, we will make room for those who show up at our shelters and increase our outreach efforts to bring people in from the cold. We all made it through last winter, and we are better prepared for this one.”

The 52-year-old Flaherty said that last winter was miserable.

“They closed down the T stops, and we had no place to go,” he said in his raspy, Popeye-like voice, which contrasted sharply with his kind blue eyes. “Not to be funny, but we had to literally dig in the snow to keep warm. We made like an igloo.”

Tacchio talked about the brutal winter last year, noting the number of people he’d seen sleeping in hallways of apartment buildings and other unconventional places in an effort to keep warm.

“Even the cops were nice to us last winter, ’cause they knew there was nowhere else for us to go,” he said. Usually the police would move homeless loiterers to shelters, Tacchio explained, but last winter many of them accepted that there was just not enough room.

In terms of money made from begging, some days are good and some days are bad. Sometimes, a day on the street will yield more than a day working at minimum wage.

“It’s hard to get work, especially when you’re a felon,” Tacchio said, recounting how he spent 18 months in prison. “But most of us just want an opportunity, a second chance. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you’re a bum.”

Tacchio talked about his former life. He had a job in construction, a wife, and a decent apartment.

“A lot of folks walk up and down these streets and just see us as these foreign beings,” he said. “But we were all people too. Me, Danny, Frank … we were all real people once. I do this because then at least I can look in the mirror and say I’m not a criminal. I’m asking people for help. It sucks, and it’s degrading, but at least it’s honest.”

Before being homeless, Flaherty had many jobs, and even said he attended Tufts for a week. Mainly, he worked in the pest-control field, at Clancy Brothers Pest Control. After his mother and father passed away one after the other, he fell apart.

“We may be homeless, but we’re a community,” Tacchio said, offering Danny half of his turkey and cheese sandwich, which Danny declined in favor of some Cape Cod potato chips. “We’re not all crack heads and thieves. Some of us just had some hard times and need some help getting back on our feet.”

In an effort to deal with the issue, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, WCAS ’09, has introduced a plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2018. The Boston Public Health Commission continues to offer resources to the homeless during extreme cold weather conditions, while Walsh has created a task force to put homeless individuals on a path to permanent housing.

“The best solution would be giving city jobs that need to be done to guys like us,” Tacchio said. “I’d be happy to clean out the gutter, or push a broom around all day. Just give us local city jobs and we’ll do them. I mean, some guys won’t, because they’re lazy bums, but most of us would do it.”

Featured Images by David Zalubowski / AP Photo