They met by chance two Thanksgivings ago, during a game of bingo at the Pine Street Inn’s annual turkey dinner. They shared a love of professional sports and battles with alcoholism.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh called his number, B59, and so Thomas Fields Jr. – he goes by T.J. – wanted to say thank you. He had been homeless for years, and had been staying at the Holy Family shelter in Dorchester, but he was two months sober, and things were on the upswing.
This past Thanksgiving, Fields encountered the mayor at the turkey dinner again, and he wanted to give him an update.
“Remember me?” he asked. “B59.” He was 14 months sober now, had just completed a job-training program, and finally gotten a place of his own. He would be getting the keys to the apartment in just over a week.
“That’s all I wanted to do was shake his hand and give him an update,” said Fields, 54, whose years of drinking had begun to physically wear on him. “I was on the other side at the time, I wanted to show him my progress.”
In the moment, Walsh had quietly confided to an aide, “This is why we do what we do.”
On Monday, two days before Christmas, Fields was in his new one-room apartment on the third floor of a brownstone in the South End, with the afternoon sun peering through the windows. He had a copy of the Bible on the table and a picture of Jesus Christ duct-taped to the yellow wall, with the caption, “I trust in you.”
He was entertaining guests. Walsh was among them.
The mayor, himself sober for 24 years, was impressed with Fields’s story and he wanted to see the apartment.
“I got this, too, I got this at my desk,” Walsh said, picking up a copy of the “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions” Alcoholics Anonymous program.
“One day at a time, that’s it,” the mayor told him. “Today is the 23rd day of December.”
Fields, originally from Philadelphia, had been in and out of shelters since he arrived in Boston in 2012. He was supposed to get a fresh start here.
Life back home was difficult. He had bounced between jobs, mostly in the fast-food industry, since he was 17, and for most of that time he had been drinking. His friends told him about Boston, and opportunities for housing and recovery programs.
“I think at one point, I just wanted to get away,” he said in an interview. His mother had always told him, “If you don’t change anything about you, you’re going to take you with you.”
“I understood what she was saying,” he said.
Life in Boston, Fields said, was the same — in and out of shelters and battling alcoholism. Things got so bad, he lost toes to frost bite, because he was too drunk to seek out a shelter. Fifteen months ago, he passed out by the Lenox Street housing complex, and when he got up all he could see was red. He wiped his eyes, but still red.
“I got scared. I cried to God and said, ‘Lord, if you take me out of this, I will not drink again,’ ” he said. He’s been sober since. “I got into detox, and never looked back at it,” he said.
The first week of December, he moved into one of the 850 housing units that the Pine Street Inn manages in buildings scattered across the city, part of a strategy to transition chronically homeless people from shelters to their own apartments, with their own keys.
Lyndia Downie, executive director of the Pine Street Inn, said that service providers have increasingly recognized in recent years that the most efficient way to help people stay off the streets is to get them into their own comfortable environments. Only then, she said, can they begin to work on underlying issues that put them on the streets in the first place, whether they be mental health or substance abuse problems.
“We work really hard to make sure you can stay in your unit, no matter what happens,” Downie said. “Doing it from a place where people are safe and stable gets you a much better outcome.”
In Fields’s case, he recently completed training for catering work. And he chairs a recovery group at the St. Francis House.
He shared stories with Walsh of life on the streets, of his stay at the Long Island homeless shelter, which the mayor is looking to re-open as a broader recovery campus.
“Please mayor, get that place running, because the homeless community is bad right now,” he said.
They joked about their love of sports, of Fields’s loyalty to Philadelphia – he wore a 76ers jersey for the mayor’s visit. “They’re behind the Celtics,” the mayor pointed out.
And they related to each other with their recovery, how fate brought them together in a bingo game, how Fields never looked back, and how he remains on the upswing.
Fields pointed out the view from his apartment. It’s a great neighborhood, he told the mayor. “When the sun goes down, even the dogs don’t make noise,” he said.
“You’ve got a nice room here,” Walsh told him.