In Downtown Crossing around 7 p.m., on the sidewalk outside Macy’s, David Reid approaches a pair of homeless men and hands each a small rectangular packet with a note attached. Inside the pouches are silver Mylar space blankets, the same kind worn by astronauts and handed to marathoners after a race because they are extremely lightweight and very warm.
The blankets are folded to the size of a deck of playing cards. The notes read, “Be safe. Stay warm.”
Reid, 55, knows the homeless pair by sight, and he knows what they’re facing, having lived on the streets for seven years himself. Now, as part of a volunteer team from Boston’s Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Reid, who has found housing in Chelsea, is helping distribute hundreds of these thermal blankets, as bone-chilling winter weather begins settling in.
“It’s the homeless helping the homeless,” Reid says.
“The goal is not to give these to shelters or agencies to hand out,” he says as he walks from Tremont Street toward South Station, stopping wherever he sees someone who might need a blanket and pulling one from his backpack.
The blanket project is not merely the latest outreach program run by St. Paul’s, the seat of Massachusetts’ Episcopal diocese. Part of the church’s mission has long been to serve the city’s homeless, through worship services, weekly meals, and other activities and programs.
“It’s in our DNA,” says the Rev. Canon Steven Bonsey, who blessed boxes of the blankets at a recent Sunday service, quoting from the Book of Exodus — “And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate” — to make his point about assisting the needy.
Yet beyond providing comfort and reducing health risks, organizers say, is an equally important goal: breaking down barriers between the homeless and the housed, between those who often suffer in the shadows and those willing and able to aid them.
Some volunteers, such as Reid, have occupied both sides of that divide. Their connection to those living without shelter is visceral, an eye-to-eye bonding based on trust and understanding.
“It’s a project only this [homeless] community could have conceived of,” says Bonsey. “They know the best places for outreach.”
The power of one homeless person handing another a blanket “speaks to the gospel itself,” he adds.
Why the project has garnered so much support so quickly — more that 8,000 blankets have already been purchased and sent to St. Paul’s for distribution — cannot be explained simply because potential donors have been asked nicely, says Paul Estes. Homeless for the past four years, Estes, 40, has been among those most responsible for getting the project going.
“Maybe the Holy Spirit jumped in and said, ‘Help them,’ ” suggests Estes with a smile as he, too, makes his way around Downtown Crossing handing out blanket packs.
The project began with a conversation over a year ago between Estes and Jennifer McCracken, a nurse who works in the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless clinic at Mass. General Hospital. The two had joined St. Paul’s annual roughly 60-mile pilgrimage from downtown Boston to Emery House, a monastery and guesthouse in West Newbury. The trek normally takes about four days to complete, leaving ample time for talk.
McCracken belongs to Christ Church in Needham. En route, she asked Estes how her church might help Boston’s homeless. Buy them more warm socks to hand out? Bag lunches? Estes thought about it and mentioned Mylar blankets as a low-cost but effective way to protect those sleeping outdoors in freezing weather. The thermal blankets, designed to reduce heat loss and able to withstand wind and moisture, are often used as emergency shelter or for outdoors camping. They were developed by NASA for use in outer space.
From her nursing experience, McCracken knows the problems caused by sleeping in the cold, including frostbite, skin injuries, and pneumonia. When added onto other medical problems such as alcohol and substance abuse, they can pose a serious health threat.
The last citywide census, conducted in December 2012, found nearly 7,000 homeless people in the Boston area, a 5.2 percent increase from the year before. An estimated 150 to 200 bed down outdoors every night, according Dr. David Munson, a member of a “street” team from Mass. General’s homeless clinic that provides medical outreach.
Munson believes these blankets can make a difference. Just in the past couple of weeks, he says, two homeless people have been hospitalized for hypothermia. Last winter, two people lost parts of both feet to frostbite.
McCracken was most taken with the idea from Estes, who knows what it’s like to have only a wet wool blanket for protection when the thermometer drops. Estes and others also tutored her in how wary the homeless, no matter how vulnerable, can be when strangers approach them with hand-outs.
“Sitting in the suburbs, you can have ideas that are not realistic or always helpful to those without homes,” says McCracken, walking the streets with Reid, Estes, and Judy Kane, another volunteer with a history of homelessness. “This has been a real learning experience for me, how to do something like this together.”
A pilot project was conducted last spring, during the last of the bitterly cold weather. Estes, Reid, and others distributed 100 blankets. Estes tested one personally, in temperatures that dipped well below freezing.
“Everyone was excited,” he says. Many discard their conventional blankets once they become wet or bug-infested, he adds. “I’d go back and ask about the blankets, and they all said it helped, if only to cut the wind. That’s a big help, though.”
Rather than soliciting funds directly, they reached out to other organizations, religious and secular, to raise the money for blankets, which cost about 80 cents each. The original goal of 500 blankets was quickly surpassed. Organizers now hope to set up distribution networks in Cambridge and Worcester.
Across Tremont Street from St. Paul’s, near the Park Street MBTA station Reid and Estes walk up to several people, explain their mission, then reach into their backpacks and hand out more blankets.
One recipient on Tremont Street, Mike Moreaux, says he’s in his 50s and has been living on the street, on and off, for six years. “I sleep wherever I can find a place,” he says. “I used to have a sleeping bag, but it grew legs and walked away, if you know what I mean.”
Holding up his packaged Mylar blanket, Moreaux adds: “One year I remember having eight blankets and still feeling cold. This will help.”