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‘I hate the cold’: In Boston, homeless people seek shelter from an extreme chill

A person slept on the steps at the Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street Boston on Friday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Outside, the wind howled and the bitter bite of historic cold met pedestrians at every turn.

But South Station offered a refuge from the chill for a handful of homeless people Friday morning, days after Governor Maura Healey said she would open up the state-owned transit hub during periods of extreme weather.

“I hate the cold,” said a 30-year-old man sitting on a bench with his bike. He identified himself as Derek B. and said he has been on the streets for five years.

Others had luggage or grocery bags filled with all their worldly possessions. A few people nodded out on benches not far from the commuter rail train platforms and the large board noting upcoming departures. Sometimes, Derek B. said, people living on the streets would sit on the sidewalks outside South Station, which can be warmed by the trains passing underneath. But it was too cold for that on Friday.

As record low temperatures began to blanket Massachusetts, homeless Bostonians who prefer the streets to shelter faced a frightening dilemma: Seek refuge at a respite center or brave weather this city hasn’t seen in more than a century.


Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has declared a cold emergency through Sunday. In Massachusetts, forecasters warned commuters of a windchill between 10 and 30 below zero Friday evening. Some forecasters predicted the peak of the chill to occur Saturday morning, shattering the record low for this day of minus 2, which was set in 1896. Wind gusts will be between 35 and 50 miles per hour, dropping the windchill to dangerous levels.

Usually during the winter months, huddling in ATM vestibules is an option to get warm, Derek B. said, but some of those spaces downtown cannot be accessed after 11 p.m., regardless of whether you have a bank card. Others opt to stay in the hallways of public housing developments, he said.


Another man living on the streets who declined to be named gave his wintertime strategy: “Keep moving.”

There were various complaints from those who call the streets home. Some didn’t like to stay in the shelters, where they worried their possessions would be stolen or there was more of a chance for a fight. Others said they disliked the way some workers at South Station ridiculed them.

Some said the station would be their home for the weekend.

“You’re in my living room right now,” said one man who declined to provide his name.

South Station for a long time served as a haven for homeless people looking to escape the frigid elements overnight. But a front-page Globe story last week revealed that it gets locked up at 11 p.m., breaking a 2015 agreement between the city, state, and a private management company that oversees the station. Homeless people who have been in the station begin to leave at that hour, as private security guards post “DO NOT ENTER” signs at the main entrance on Atlantic Avenue and use garbage bags to tie some doors shut.

Healey’s solution: Keep South Station open during extreme weather events no matter what.

“It’s a matter of basic humanity in my view,” she said during a GBH interview earlier this week. On Thursday, 14 people stayed at the station overnight, according to Pine Street Inn, a Boston group that aims to end homelessness.


Meanwhile, about three dozen Boston Centers for Youth & Families facilities were opened as warming centers on Friday and would be opened again on Saturday. Additionally, the Southampton Street Shelter for adult men and Woods Mullen Shelter for adult women are open 24/7, with an amnesty in effect for anyone who has a nonviolent restriction at those shelters. More than 1,000 people stayed in city-run shelters Wednesday and Thursday nights, according to city authorities.

Pine Street Inn said its shelters will remain open around the clock and no one will be turned away. Once that organization’s shelter beds are filled, it planned to accommodate people on mats and cots in lobbies, a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Still, some preferred Boston’s streets to indoor spaces on Friday. Down at Mass. and Cass, the epicenter of the region’s opioid and homelessness crises, the air was cold enough on Friday to sting exposed skin, but that didn’t stop the illicit drug market near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard.

While the crowd on Atkinson Street was thinner than in months past, multiple people still hiked up the sleeves of their winter coats and plunged needles into their veins on the street in the afternoon. One man held up his coat against a cutting wind with one hand while lighting a glass pipe that was secured between his lips with another. Another man was soliciting the crowd for Adderall.

On either side of the street, tents had been erected to keep out the cold. There were about 20 in all. Some swayed in the wind. A half-dozen people declined to answer questions about the cold. One man, bundled up in blankets and sleeping bags on the side of the road, said he would talk only in exchange for cash. Others just shook their heads while blowing into their hands.


One woman asked a reporter, “Where’s the [expletive] housing? Report on that.” She then walked away.

Jim Stewart, director of First Church Shelter in Cambridge, said a central problem is there is even less space available in shelters now, in part because of space constraints instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The municipal and state shelters haven’t come up with expanded capacities,” he said during a phone interview.

There can be a host of reasons why people don’t want to stay in shelters, Stewart said. Some people are hesitant to sleep side by side people because of the pandemic, others simply don’t like the way they are treated in the shelters, he said.

Some shelters have unrealistic standards of sobriety, he said, that someone with substance use disorder or a serious alcohol problem can’t meet without withdrawal. Sometimes people cannot access their medication while in a shelter, he said, and some people have psychiatric conditions where being close to people they don’t know evokes panic and fright.

Opening South Station to the homeless, he said, is a temporary solution.

“They’re not places where people can get on top of things,” he said. “It’s a place to herd people, keep them out of the way and out of the streets.”


Emily Sweeney and Shirley Leung of Globe staff contributed to this report.

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.