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Finding gratitude amid a heartbreaking crisis

At the Pine Street Inn, there are ‘millions of things to be thankful for’

Kevin Mount, a recipient of Pine Street Inn's services,  is grateful for the help he got from the shelter.
Kevin Mount, a recipient of Pine Street Inn's services, is grateful for the help he got from the shelter.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

When he first approached the threshold of the place he’s called home now for three years, it took Kevin Mount a long time to dig deep, to find the courage to walk up to the front door.

He needed a half-hour to fully gather himself.

He needed time to summon the inner strength required to acknowledge that his life had led him to the place that he so desperately needed — a place that, ultimately, would save him.

“I’d never been to a shelter before,’' Mount, 27, told me the other day at the Pine Street Inn. “I waited until it was like 7 o’clock at night. I walked up and down the street and I’m looking at this place and all these people walking in here.

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“I didn’t know what it was going to be like. It’s a shelter. Then I finally found the nerve to walk up here. They triaged me. And I thought to myself: What have you just done?

"I was very anxious. There was a feeling of disbelief. But also an overwhelming sadness came over me.''

Disbelief. Sadness. And then — at long last — blessed redemption.

Redemption. It’s been on the Pine Street Inn’s menu since 1969, when it first opened its doors, providing a safe harbor, a welcoming alternative to life on the streets of Boston for some 200 men suffering from alcoholism.

It was open when Apollo astronauts were still aiming for the moon. When Vietnam-era riots roiled the streets of American cities. Through the mayoralties of Kevin White, Ray Flynn, Tom Menino, and Marty Walsh.

And now, as a Thanksgiving dawns like no other — amid a historic pandemic that already has killed more than 10,000 in Massachusetts — it is performing work like it has never done before.

It is preparing for a holiday like none in recent memory.

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“No volunteers. Oh my God, it’s heartbreaking,” Lyndia Downie, Pine Street Inn’s president and executive director, told me the other day as we sat in a sun-splashed dining room off Harrison Avenue.

By the middle of May, 36 percent of Pine Street Inn’s guests at its shelters were testing positive for COVID-19. After a string of 18 weeks without a single new case, there has been a small spike: nine positive cases over the last week or so.

“Thanksgiving is a really sad day here because everybody’s going home normally,” Downie said. “Everybody has somewhere to go. Except the people here. And it weighs on people. You see the anxiety really grow the week before.

“And so, this year, we’re going to have that same feeling. Everybody’s going to have a different Thanksgiving. It’s going to be strange for all of us.”

That’s for sure.

The purest of our holidays — a celebration of family and friends that comes without gift wrap or tinsel — will not be worthy of a Norman Rockwell engraving this year.

The huge feast with the golden-brown turkey, the cranberry sauce, and a table packed with family and friends is being downsized, challenging us to find reason to raise our eyes heavenward and give thanks.

But people like Stephanie Brown, who has worked here for 13 years — most recently as associate director of the women’s inn at Pine Street — know there’s a reason for gratitude amid the gloom.

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There are 81 women staying at the shelter she helps run. “We are full,” she told me. “We are consistently full.”

Full. And lucky. There hasn’t been a positive COVID test at the women’s inn since springtime. Brown herself tested positive for the virus in April. So she knows how it feels.

“It was debilitating fatigue, honestly,” she said. “I was lucky to not have the respiratory issues that are associated with COVID. But there were days when I could barely get out of bed. It was a good 10 to 14 days before it broke. There were some days when my energy was up and I was able to get on with daily tasks.”

She has tested negative ever since — something for which she’ll give thanks Thursday. On Thanksgiving, she’ll be at her post, serving guests.

There will be bingo games. There will be charades. And prizes. There will be a tree of thanks, which will be festooned with decals that tell stories of what the inn’s guests are giving thanks for this year.

“I’m thankful for my friends and my family,” Brown told me. “But I’m also thankful for the role that I have here at Pine Street. I’m thankful that I’m able to advocate for those who don’t have a voice at the moment.

“I take great pride in the work that I do here. The ladies who stay at my shelter, they’re great people. They really are. Unfortunately, they have faced some heavy burdens recently due to COVID and I want to make sure we do whatever we can to make sure that we don’t lose sight of a prosperous year to come.”

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That seems like a dream now.

A mirage. Warm, sunlit days on some far-off horizon as the darkness approaches and winter’s chill tightens its grip with each November nightfall.

Be strong. Be resilient. Support each other. That’s the message Lyndia Downie wants to spread.

“There isn’t a piece of our operation that is not stretched really, really thin,” Pine Street Inn’s president and executive director said. “I keep saying to people, ‘We’ve got to get through the winter.’ And that’s the job right now.

“We’ve got to get through the winter in one piece. We’ve got to protect as many people as we can. We’ve got to add some capacity statewide. And then we’ve got to stay on top of the COVID testing so it doesn’t get to where it was in the spring.”

Few people know how valuable — how essential — that mission is as Kevin Mount does.

Lives really do hang in the balance.

He knows because he has been there. He has been one of them.

“They saved my life,” he said. “Without exaggeration, they saved my life.

”Thank you, Pine Street.”

It’s a prayer of sorts. A message of thanks he will hold in his heart as he bows his head over his holiday meal on Thursday.

“I don’t take any day for granted now,” he said. “I have millions of things to be thankful for. But the one thing I’m thankful for is the right now. Now. The here and now.”

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Who wouldn’t nod and solemnly affirm a simple prayer like that?


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.