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OPINION

Finding community on the street

Many tragic things happen at Mass. and Cass, but there are also countless acts of kindness, generosity, and grace. Both from the people on the street, and the staff that serves them.

People talk in the afternoon at the homeless camp at Mass and Cass on Oct. 23.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

You may be one of the many people who looks at Mass. and Cass and sees only a horror show. Maybe you witness the masses of people, many of whom are under the influence of opioids and stimulants, on your drive home from work. Maybe you avert your eyes as a panhandler approaches your car with a tattered cardboard sign. Or maybe you’ve never been to the neighborhood, but you wince when you see images on social media, and quickly scroll away.

The urge to look away is understandable. But if you can summon the bravery to do the opposite, and actually look closer, you’ll see that there is a strong community among the unhoused and drug users at Mass. and Cass. And while the neighborhood is full of complex challenges, recognizing this community’s strength is the key to addressing the area’s most pressing problems.

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I know this because I worked as policy director for the City of Boston’s Office of Recovery Services for five years. During that time, I was part of an extraordinary team that greatly expanded harm reduction, outreach, and recovery supports for the people at Mass. and Cass. I also know about this community’s resilience because of my own experience with street homelessness and addiction.

When I was 14, I was a runaway, sleeping on the streets of Boston. And while this was 21 years ago, before Mass. and Cass was the epicenter for drug users experiencing homelessness in Boston, I found refuge with a similar community of unhoused people in the Back Bay. I often felt safer sleeping in a highway exit tunnel, or on a sidewalk, than I did at home, or at the Department of Youth Services or Department of Children and Family facilities where I was court-ordered.

With recent discussions about Mass. and Cass, people have asked why someone would want to sleep in a tent if there is an open shelter bed a block away. I understand why — finding community in a place that many people find deplorable resonates with me. Many tragic things happen at Mass. and Cass, but there are also countless acts of kindness, generosity, and grace. Both from the people on the street, and the staff that serves them. People share food and clothing. They reverse their peers’ overdoses. They protect their friends from violence. They work jobs so their partners no longer have to do sex work. They create art. Additionally, the city and nonprofit professionals who serve people at Mass. and Cass are sometimes the only ones left who engage them without judgment. These staff offer attention and support with no strings attached. Unconditional care is a rare treasure for a community that often has strained, or nonexistent, ties with family and friends.

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I’ve seen many people struggle once they get housed or get into recovery because they miss the professionals who served them when they were experiencing homelessness. For individuals at Mass. and Cass, sometimes “progress” can look like moving on from the only people in your life who care about you. If that’s what progress looks like, who would want it? This dilemma is crucial to understand because if we can harness the healthy social bonds that exist at Mass. and Cass, we can better improve our shelter, housing, and treatment systems to mirror these strengths. But it all starts by rejecting stigma and recognizing the depth of humanity that exists there.

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For years after I entered recovery and secured housing, I would still hang out with my houseless friends on the street. I only started to feel comfortable housed and in recovery when my new social bonds became as meaningful as the ones I had on the street. None of my progress would have been possible if it wasn’t for caring professionals, like those currently at Mass. and Cass, who loved me without judgment. I sought to emulate this philosophy of unconditional love when I began my career in public service, because it is what saved my life.

The potential of our most vulnerable is limitless. Next time you see a negative story about Mass. and Cass, please squint your eyes and look closer — you might just see the solution to the problem embedded in the community that exists there.

Brendan Little serves on the state’s Opioid Recovery and Remediation Fund Advisory Council.