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  It starts With a Bed
UVM alums Richard Weintraub & Lyndia Downie
lead fight to break cycle of homelessness in Boston

On a warm morning in May, the homeless services enclave on Boston’s Long Island is peaceful, a harbor removed from the city’s bustle. By late afternoon, it will be a different story in these old brick buildings, once a hospital and rehab clinic, now the epicenter of Boston’s daily battle against homelessness.

On any given evening, about 2,100 of the city’s downtrodden come off the streets into Boston’s — and New England’s — two largest homeless shelters: the city-run Long Island facility (connected by bridge to the mainland) and its downtown satellites, and the privately run Pine Street Inn. “The Last Resort,” they call these places, and at their most basic they offer rows of thin-mattress beds that can literally be lifesavers during a Boston winter.

But that is only the beginning of what social service professionals refer to mantra-like as “the continuum,” an evolved, beyond-the-mattress set of programs meant to break the cycle of homelessness. It is a combination of job training, drug counseling, health care, housing, and “life training” that was basically invented in Boston over the past two decades by UVM alumni Richard Weintraub ’75 and Lyndia Downie ’83, the directors of Long Island and Pine Street, respectively. Through their combined forty-two years working with Boston’s homeless, they have seen the full spectrum of a social ill — from the halls of government to the city streets.

“I can be in these fancy meetings around town trying to raise money,” says Weintraub, whose official title is director of Homeless Services for the Boston Public Health Commission, “then I come back here and get yelled at by some guy who’s missing a sheet. I say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll find your sheet.’”

That front-line perspective has made Weintraub and Downie painfully aware of the stubbornness of the problem to which both have devoted their professional lives. Despite the continuum, homelessness in Boston has increased 54 percent over the past ten years, with six-thousand homeless in the city last winter. The alumni pair have led the effort to build a better pump, but the hole in the bow has only gotten bigger. Yet neither offers a sense that they’ll give up the fight anytime soon.

“The guests we see are individuals, and we see individual success in each of them,” says Downie. “From the outside it can look depressing. But the truth is there is a lot of joy here. There’s a real spirituality, or whatever you want to call it. There’s a real feeling that this is bigger than us. This work is a broad way for people to live out their values.”


Richard Weintraub, a 49-year-old Adam Arkin look alike in a tweed coat and tie, is looking out his window in the Long Island facility, across Boston Harbor to the city skyline, with a broad smile across his face.

“This office has the best view in Boston,” he says.

Through the course of a morning wandering around Long Island, Weintraub will also point out the loading dock with the best view in Boston, the cafeteria with the best view in Boston, and the classroom with the best view in Boston. He finds it funny every time he says it, letting out an almost goofy, infectious laugh.

Weintraub also points out several times, with barely restrained pride, that the office, the loading dock, the cafeteria, the classroom, and everything else that fills this old hospital was not here in 1985 when he arrived. Back then, there were just one-hundred beds and a lot of dilapidated buildings. Established in 1983, Long Island was Boston’s first city-run emergency shelter (all the others, like Pine Street, were private nonprofits) and it was supposed to be temporary. After two years, the city realized homelessness wasn’t going away, and brought Weintraub from Pine Street to oversee the place.

Following in a family tradition of social service, Weintraub had begun working at the Pine Street Inn as a third shift counselor in 1978. He still recalls the heady thrill of getting his career started.

“I bought a convertible for $200,” he says. “I remember driving down Memorial Drive along the Charles. I’d just landed this job. I was saying, ‘They’re paying me $9,000, I’m going to help people, and I’m driving a convertible.’” Punctuated by that laugh, he adds, “I was on top of the world.”

Weintraub had risen into the administration at Pine Street when the city tapped him for their new homeless services division. The one-hundred beds he was hired to oversee soon grew to seven-hundred as newly homeless arrived and the regulars kept coming as well.

“For self-preservation we needed to get people out of the cycle of homelessness,” he says. But as the homeless population was growing, it was also becoming more complex.

“The typical profile,” explains Weintraub, “is, ‘I have a substance abuse problem, I have no education or very limited education, I have limited job skills, I have limited life skills, I might have HIV from sharing needles.’ To rehab folks with those issues is an intensive effort.”

Thus the continuum, which is on display every day on Long Island.

Serving Ourselves (or SOS, one of many premeditated acronyms along the continuum) is the job-training program, developed by Weintraub and recognized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as the best in the country. Long Island clients who have moved out of the emergency shelter and into the facility’s transitional housing — Project SOAR — can train in laundry service, food service, or work at the shelter’s two-acre farm. They are paid, they learn a trade, and they learn basic work skills like dressing appropriately, showing up on time, and talking to a supervisor.

In Long Island’s industrial-size kitchen, clients are working on the day’s meals. This is work the shelter, pre-continuum, contracted out. In the course of a day they will go through about one-thousand eggs, a couple hundred sandwiches, and nine-hundred pounds of Salisbury steak.

A classroom component to job training teaches math and computer skills. Clients are also provided counseling and health services, and when they are able, housing services to move them out of the shelter. All of this has grown from a one-hundred bed shelter. “We don’t just run it,” Weintraub says, letting his pride shine through for a moment, “we built it.”

That work earned Weintraub the city of Boston’s Henry L. Shattuck Public Service Award last year in recognition of a long career in which success is perhaps better measured in the story of one than the statistics of thousands. Weintraub talks about Bill, a man he met in his first days working at Pine Street in the late 1970s. “In the early days he used to get drunk and try to beat me up,” he says with hard-won amusement. “He wanted to kill me.”

Bill followed Weintraub to Long Island and they eventually became friends. As he got older he wasn’t abusing drugs and alcohol anymore, but he never lived outside the emergency shelter system. In his sixties, Bill died at the shelter last year
“He was never able to move along the continuum,” Weintraub says, “but I still feel like he was a success. We were able to keep him alive. If we weren’t here, Bill might have died twenty years ago. And he always knew we were here for him.”

By 2 p.m. the fenced-in courtyard in front of the Pine Street Inn in downtown Boston is filling up with men waiting for the shelter’s 4 p.m. opening. Biding their time, the men sit alone or in small groups. Moving beyond the continuum, attention is shifting from helping men like these out of homelessness to keeping them from becoming homeless to begin with. Part of this prevention effort, says Pine Street’s Lyndia Downie, is focusing on institutions like the department of mental health, the department of public health, and the prison system.

“We’re seeing a lot of people coming out of corrections with no job, no job skills, no housing,” she says. “If you had a system where people were getting some kind of substance abuse treatment, some kind of training, you’d have a lower recidivism rate, you’d spend less on corrections. But politically…” she shrugs.

Downie, 42, with a head of tight, springy curls and heavy eyelids that make her look serious even when she’s not, came to Pine Street in 1984 with plans to work there briefly before moving on to law school. Plans change.

“At the end of six months I was really smitten with the place, and the people, and just the mission,” Downie says. She rose through the ranks and has been executive director for a year and a half. The transformation she has led at Pine Street mirrors Long Island: from a basic emergency shelter, the facility now reflects the continuum with work training, health care, transitional and managed housing. Each year about six-hundred homeless people “graduate” into self-sufficiency through the organization’s programs.

Still, last winter every one of Pine Street’s 460 emergency beds, plus the lobby floor, was full. “Right now, we’re not winning,” Downie says.

Ironically, while Boston has led the nation in homeless services, it has also led the nation in the primary cause of homelessness: Massachusetts is currently the third most expensive state to live, with housing not only pricey but scarce.

“I think about when I first got out of UVM and came to Boston I lived with six people,” Downie says. “It was fun, but it was the only way I could pay rent. Now things are even more dire. Most of the affordable housing you see in greater Boston is 50 to 80 percent of median income. Most of our folks are well below 30 percent.”

On top of that, Massachusetts, like most states, is in the middle of a budget crisis. So in addition to directing the shelter and its many programs, Downie is also trying to convince the legislature to keep Pine Street’s funding intact.

“There’s this assumption that if you cut the money the people go away,” she says, walking through the soft-colored halls of Pine Street. Pausing to greet Mosella, a guest sitting in her transitional housing room, Downie may as well have tacked up a poster reading “The People Don’t Go Away.” Continuing down the hall, Downie tells Mosella’s story. The shelter’s van crew, which roams the streets nightly, approached the woman for seven years before she finally relented and came in. After six months, she finally stopped sleeping on the floor and accepted a bed. She put up one more round of refusals before moving into the shelter’s more private transitional housing.

“Now she’s willing to sit down with a psychiatrist who comes in once a week,” explains Downie. “Could I or the staff have imagined that five years ago? No, but you’ve got to measure things in that way. These folks have so many obstacles that you can’t use the same measurements of success.”

Mosella is moving along the continuum, a journey that, like the progress of homeless care itself, started with an emergency bed. Take away the beds, and the rest falters. Yet, in a cost-saving move proposed last spring, the Massachusetts legislature was calling for a 15 percent cut in emergency beds.

“It’s really disheartening,” says Kelley Cronin, director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission. “Over the last ten years Pine Street and Long Island have been able to create these new and innovative programs, but it’s all built on a base of shelter beds.”

“We’re looking at an escalation of the problem and a lack of resources,” says Sister Margaret Leonard, director of the family shelter program Project Hope in Boston. “Lyndia and Rich may be looking at a 15 percent cut in their line items. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with that and keep the continuum going?”

“That’s when you really have to manage,” answers Weintraub. “When we were growing and building this it tested our innovation. Now our management will be tested.”

And whether it is just self-motivation, hubris, or reality, Downie says even with the increase in homelessness, even with the lack of resources, there is still just one goal and it is attainable.

“You just have to keep your eyes on the prize,” she says. “And that’s ending homelessness as we know it.”
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