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OPINION

To end homelessness, start by looking inward

We have thinned out safety nets to their frayed ends and expected those without boots to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Nicole Reilly packs her belongings before leaving her tent at Newmarket Square in Boston on Jan. 12. She said she has been homeless for 10 years.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

I fear that our hearts have hardened toward those who lost their homes and have been forced to live on the streets. We might drop some change into one of their much-used coffee cups, yet as we pass their shelters with disgust, we often think of them as a blight on our city, a hopeless societal problem. We have come to think of people on the street as “the other,” and we allow ourselves to think it could never happen to us. We lamented, long before the COVID epidemic, that homelessness still exists, and that our political leaders didn’t have the resources to fix the problem.

It’s not only a lack of resources but also a lack of empathy. We can do more as a society and as individuals. We can understand how we are personally implicated, whether through figurative walls we put up around our own communities with restrictive zoning laws, or by allowing health care to be structured as a business — especially when it comes to mental health care, excluding those most in need. We have thinned out safety nets to their frayed ends and expected those without boots to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. We can start by looking inward.

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We can listen to the stories of unhoused people. Our homeless community didn’t choose to end up on the street. Some lost a job and couldn’t pay the rent, or developed an illness with huge medical and medication bills. And some just had bad luck. Many of these personal stories will make you weep. Or make you realize how thin the line can be between being housed and being homeless. Listening allows us to appreciate that we are dealing with the lives of human beings, not numbers in an Excel sheet.

Understanding the plight of individuals can help us change the language. Let’s stop using terms that refer to homeless individuals as objects or as problems and instead talk about homeless people and homeless communities. Boston’s annual homeless census counted 6,192 people in shelters or on the street on a single night in January 2020. That’s an overwhelming number, but let’s think about each person it represents. Each name.

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Let’s use the crisis at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard to understand who were living in these tents. Each tent was inhabited by a human being: a mother, a brother, a dear friend. Each tent is a small universe that belongs to Luis, or James, or Claire. Maybe the tents are gone, but Luis, James, and Claire are not yet in the clear. We should want the tents gone not because their structures are ugly and dirty or because they hurt businesses, but because those living there are fellow human beings for whom we wish better and happier lives.

We can join in the efforts of others. We can help organizations already trying to make a difference: Boston Medical Center, Pine Street Inn, Boston Health Care for the Homeless, St. Francis House, and so many other exceptional providers in Greater Boston. We’re beginning to see the start of meaningful change in our city made possible through committed city leadership, policy advocacy, and people-centered solutions. This is yielding results with recent eviction moratoriums, construction beginning on permanent supportive housing units in Jamaica Plain, and progress toward low-threshold housing sites throughout the city, such as the pop-up cabin community on the Shattuck Hospital campus or the Roundhouse Hotel. However, there’s so much more to do, and that’s where the rest of us can come in. Not with a focus on numbers, but on people. When we focus on people not as numbers but as individuals who have important stories to tell, we as a society will do a better job of caring for one another.

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The possibility for a shift in attitude is a gateway to change, to systemic overhaul, and to one-on-one impact. That’s the purpose of Winter Walk. It’s a community gathering. A joyful celebration of empathy. And most of all, it is a moment to shift perception. To break walls and walk shoulder to shoulder as a housed and homeless community, to end homelessness in Boston.

Ari Barbanell is the executive director of Winter Walk, which will take place on Feb. 13.