Walking Mass. and Cass with bleach kits, granola bars and a chance to get off the streets

On a recent gray morning, with the temperature barely above freezing, Senior Medical Officer Diana Sencion had just started her rounds to check on the homeless around Mass. and Cass. She was wearing candy pink knit gloves. Soon they were in someone else’s hands.

Sencion saw Elena Soto, who has lived here occasionally on the streets for the past five years. The two women kissed as Sencion whispered a short prayer in Spanish: Dios mio ayudala y dale mucha fuerza. God helps him and gives him strength.

When Sencion felt Soto’s skin, she knew what to do. She had to part with her North Face gloves, the warmest she had.

“I knew she was cold. I was cold, ”Sencion said. “You have to care about the people to do this job. “

Every day with Boston cops in their patrol cars presiding over Mass. and Cass, a stream of outreach workers and nurses from the city and various nonprofits such as Boston Health Care for the Homeless, Eliot Community Human Services and Victory programs are rolling out among the homeless.

Community health worker Cornelius Sewell (right) from Whittier Street Health Center spoke with Geanaro Pirone (left) and Jesus Escobar outside their tents in Newmarket Square.Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff

For so many people struggling with mental illness or a drug problem, these workers are a lifeline.

Whittier, which is about two miles from Roxbury, sends a team of four at Mass. and Cass. Officially, their goal is to prevent HIV, which is on the rise among homeless drug addicts, easily spread through needle sharing and unprotected sex. So they carry condoms and bleach kits to clean the needles, and test anyone who wants an HIV test. But sometimes people are just hungry or cold. So they also carry granola bars.

It is moving, exhausting work to see so many people living in poverty, especially in a city as wealthy as Boston.

“When I started coming to Mass and Cass, I just started crying,” Sencion said.

She and her colleagues know what is at stake. People shouldn’t be living in tents. The streets of Boston shouldn’t be open-air drug markets. And every bleach kit or cereal bar is an opportunity to start a conversation that might help someone in difficulty make a decision. to get to a better place than this.

“There is a lot of pain here,” observed Frank Mitchell, the Whittier program coordinator, as he stood among the tents set up on Atkinson Street. “You never know when someone has a moment of clarity.”

* * *

On a frosty morning just before Christmas, a man wrapped in a blue and green flannel blanket walked up to Cornelius Sewell along Newmarket Square.

“How are you, man? “Sewell asked as he handed her a leaflet with information on HIV testing and counseling. “If you need help, man. . . make that phone call. . . You’re not alone . . . I am positive too. If I can do it, you can do it.

Community health worker Cornelius Sewell (right) spoke with a woman in Mass.  and Cass.
Community health worker Cornelius Sewell (right) spoke with a woman in Mass. and Cass. Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff

Sewell has been HIV positive since 2006 after sharing needles with someone he didn’t know who had the virus. Today Sewell is in good health, his viral loads are undetectable. You wouldn’t know he’s positive unless he tells you.

HIV “has no face,” Sewell said. “You have to take care of yourself. You can’t take drugs.

Sewell, who has been a community health worker for Whittier since 2018, urged the man on the blanket to seek stable shelter, noting that the city plans to clean up the area by Jan. 12 and provide housing for all. world.

“I know [Mayor] Michelle Wu has three locations, ”he said. “Two of them are hotels! “

On other days, the Whittier outreach team visits Nubian Square, Codman Square, South Bay and the Ashmont neighborhood. But these don’t compare to the misery in Mass. and Cass, where violent crime and overdoses are all too common.

Sewell had an overdose a few months ago right here on Atkinson Street.

“She was purple,” he said. Then several nurses and outreach workers came running to his side. “They brought this girl back to life.”

In his tote bag, Sewell carries a Narcan nasal spray, which can reverse the effect of an opioid overdose. Did he have to use it?

“By the grace of God, no,” Sewell said.

* * *

As I made my way to Atkinson Street, where the main camp is located, Whittier’s community health worker, Lamar Booth, reminded me to be careful. Hide my notebook. Don’t take pictures. Never enter the tents.

“We are in the war zone,” he explained.

Booth works in the Mass area. and Cass for five years and says things have gotten worse since tents proliferated last summer. Syringes, feces and waste litter the sidewalk. The city has cleared the tents on two streets, but dozens remain in Atkinson and Newmarket Square.

Booth snuck in and out of groups of homeless people, yelling “Bleach Kits!” Masks!

Supervisor of Community Health Worker Frank Mitchell of Whittier Street Health Center (left) arrived with Cornelius Sewell in Mass.  and Cass.
Supervisor of Community Health Worker Frank Mitchell of Whittier Street Health Center (left) arrived with Cornelius Sewell in Mass. and Cass. Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff

He has takers. If people seem disinterested, Booth will ask, “Are you hungry? He has granola bars.

Last week, Booth met someone who wanted an HIV test and then became interested in getting treatment for his drug addiction. The next day, Booth was ready to take him to Whittier, but struggled to reconnect with him in Mass. and Cass. So Booth and the team piled into their van and picked it up at the MBTA station in Back Bay. It would take several more days between getting Medicare treated and finding the right facility, but the man has embarked on a drug rehab program.

“When you have someone who wants it, you don’t want to lose it,” Booth said.

It is also because the times when people want to change are rare. People with substance use disorders must be prepared to recover.

“If they’re not ready to come in, we can’t force them in,” Booth said. “It would never work. “

The appeal of life on the streets is real. For too many people, the camps have become their only home. Christmas wreaths adorn some tents; others are fortified with wooden pallets and tarpaulins. One is powered by a noisy generator.

“If this is your only community, it becomes a challenge to leave that,” said Frederica Williams, CEO of Whittier Street, “especially if you are abandoned by your family. and society.

Williams knows that a conversation is unlikely to change lives. This is why his team keeps coming back. Some cases have been followed for years.

“It’s really meeting people one on one and knowing their stories and meeting people where they are,” she added.

* * *

Last week, Sencion saw Soto – a 29-year-old mother of six – wander around Mass. and Cass. But the two didn’t have much interaction.

“She disappears a lot on me,” Sencion said. “She gives me an attitude.”

As a medical case manager, Sencion follows approximately 75 clients. She checks that they are taking their medication, receiving health care and having enough to eat. If necessary, she will bring them to Whittier for lab work.

Sencion first met Soto in 2017. She got to know her well enough to throw a baby shower in Soto in 2019 while Soto stayed with his mother in Mattapan. Sencion thought Soto had quit drugs, but later a social worker told him that Soto had used heroin during her pregnancy.

“That kind of broke my heart,” Sencion said. “Here, I thought she was fine. “

The day I met Soto, she was grateful to Sencion and social workers like her.

“They are good people,” Soto said.

Along Mass. and Cass, it’s hard to imagine that in two weeks the encampments will be gone. More power for Wu if she succeeds. Tent or not, Team Whittier plans to return to the area as long as there are people in need of help.

“We are here in the fire,” said Mitchell, the program coordinator. “We’re here every day to get someone out of it.”

Shirley Leung is a business columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]

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