PHOTOS BY LUIS EDGARDO COTTO | TRANSLATION BY ADRIENNE EVANS
Those experiencing homelessness are among the populations most exposed to COVID-19, and speaking with people on the street near Boston Medical Center, it’s clear that a lot of them expect little more than a whole lot more suffering than usual.
Some fear the remedy—seclusion—more than the virus. That’s the case for Josué, who said a forced stay-at-home order would spell an inevitable death sentence for nomadic types like him.
Josué was born in Brooklyn, New York, into a Puerto Rican family, and speaks a Puerto Rican Spanish. He is one of the 18,471 homeless people who, according to a 2019 report from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), reside in Massachusetts.
Josué has been on the streets for seven years, landing there while falling into drug addiction after being wounded in both legs during a gang-related shooting.
He is one of the few roamers, out of the hundreds of regulars around the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) building, where AHOPE (Access, Harm Reduction, Overdose Prevention and Education) provides services, who appeared to be practicing some measure of social distancing.
“I am taking care of myself. I’m not in the los big corillos (groups),” Josué said on Friday. “I clean the wound every three hours,” he added, showing a protruding abscess on one of his cheeks. He said that he has stopped going to sleep in the shelters because “you only hear the coughs of others, and now they tell me that it is worse. Everyone is coughing.”
“I’m going to listen to my doctor,” Josué added. “I try to sleep around the churches. That is the best. I know one where the priest treats me very well. I am fighting for my life.”
Josué and others said that from what they have seen and heard, a lot of homeless people in Boston don’t yet know what’s really happening with the virus, and in many cases don’t want to find out. For that reason, AHOPE staff is trying to educate and inform.
“They tell us, they put up signs, but many don’t read them or ignore them and don’t want to listen, either,” Josué said. “None of these people are understanding what we have in front of us. They are acting as if nothing is happening. For now, I can only think of myself. If they take us to places where we can be safely separated from each other, okay. But that will not happen … It is like when they put us in cells to kill ourselves.”
“I know this is serious because my mom and my dad call me all the time,” Josué added. “That’s why I know what is happening. But nobody here is taking it seriously. Here, they only have the path of drugs.”
The situation has already impacted his routine dramatically: “I like to bathe every day. Now, I haven’t been bathing for two days because I didn’t go into a shelter. This has never happened to me in my life.”
Luis, another homeless person I spoke with, is almost out of hope. Born in Waltham, he grew up in the Cantera neighborhood of Santurce, San Juan. He is 46 years old, has been on the street since 1994, and speaks poetically.
“I am doing the best I can do, but this life is just suffering,” Luis said. “Here we are, as if we were a car without gasoline. We are not going to move anywhere. Because depression and addiction go hand in hand, side by side. I’m not worried about anything. One does not know if it comes or goes.”
Luis spoke about his own addiction: “It is like playing Russian roulette, but not with one bullet but with four bullets. I have survived 15 overdoses and have tried to rehabilitate myself 25 times. Sometimes I have stopped for two weeks; other times, two months; and sometimes, one or two years. I’m afraid maybe I’m not going to be here tomorrow. I have death behind my ears.
“Honestly, at the level that I am, I do not know what is happening in the world. I don’t watch television and I sleep there on that corner, or on that one. I think it would be better to be dead than to be alive. Here is just a lot of suffering. I made a contract with the devil. Only god can save me.”
I also spoke with Jerry, who was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Jerry is 43 years old and came to Boston six years ago. He said he recognizes that there is more aid in Massachusetts than in Puerto Rico, “but not so much.”
Jerry said he wanders with his partner, who waited patiently behind him as he spoke to me. He said the only extraordinary precautions he has taken to avoid coronavirus have been: trying to hoard methadone, “in case something happens to us,” and looking for a bridge to sleep under “with no one around.”
“We are suffering, crazy,” he said.
Even in his current predicament, Jerry applauded AHOPE: “They give us syringes,” he said. “In one place, they help women. In another, they take you to the detox [rehabilitation center] in a taxi that comes here to pick you up. Each place is for a different kind of help.”
At 4:30 in the afternoon on Friday, though, the building was closed. Near the entrance door, behind a partition, a young man unbuckled his belt, took it off his waist, put it on his arm, pulled it tight with his teeth, and punctured himself with a syringe.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.