Six inches of snow had fallen by 5:30 last night, and Boston’s homeless crowded the entrances to Pine Street Inn in Roxbury. It was warm inside, and the smell of rolls, fresh out of the oven, filled the hall. Telephones rang in the main lobby and the metal detector beeped away as more people entered to escape the snow. Men and women leaned against the walls and watched the storm through the windows. Many held plastic bags filled with their possessions. One man, in a faded sweatshirt and jeans, told me he didn’t mind the weather at all, as he stood outside the entrance and took the last drags of his cigarette with his bare hands.
Pine Street Inn’s outreach teams ― groups that canvas the city to pick up homeless people and bring them to shelter before big storms and harsh weather ― don’t mind snowstorms either. By 5:30 pm, plows worked to clear the Inn’s driveway, and more white Ford outreach vans were being readied to head out.
The vans started circuiting Boston at 9:30 yesterday morning. Outreach director Leo Adorno mobilized the vans early because he wanted the teams to hit the streets and inform people of the imminent inclement weather and get people indoors before the storm arrived in earnest. But as the weather worsened and traffic congested Boston’s roads, the vans were stuck in gridlock. Though outreach teams were incapacitated, people still arrived at the Inn in need of shelter.
Outreach veterans like John Dempsey tried their best to quickly navigate the vans through last night’s busy streets and make it back to the Inn, which houses 10,000 people annually and 1300 every night. “It took me nearly two hours each way,” Dempsey said about his route from the Inn to the Back Bay and back. “I’ve been doing these trips for three years and through all kinds of weather and I didn’t think last night was so bad. These vans have never missed a night and I just got through each trip as best I could.”
According to Adorno, the morning vans transported a handful of homeless individuals to shelter before the start of the storm. He explained that several people refused outreach services despite efforts to deter their plans to stay out in the cold.
“There is only so much we can do,” he said. “We try our best to explain the dangers of severe weather but we let people make their own decisions. If they choose to stay where they are, we supply them with a warm meal and blankets. We also leave them an emergency number they can call to contact us later in the evening if they seek shelter and we will come back for them.” Outreach personnel also contact 9-1-1 if they believe someone will not survive the night or has made a deleterious decision.
Like Dempsey, Adorno, 50, has also driven through hell frozen over to help the homeless. He has been with Pine Street Inn’s outreach program for 17 years. “This is a demanding job and it can be very emotional but I try to focus on the positive things we are doing. At the end of the day when I go home, I feel good and just getting people to trust me enough to help them is incredible. When I’m driving out there my safety crosses my mind but people need my help and that gets me through anything.”