When Two Worlds Meet, Both Change
It was another of many sermons on homelessness delivered at the Congregational Church in Norwell. But the message, on a Sunday morning two years ago, resonated with at least one member of the congregation. "Our pastor always leaves us with something to think about on Sundays," recalled Norwell resident Christina Nordstrom. "He said you need a personal relationship with people. Don't just throw some money in a cup and pass by."
So that's what she set out to do.
Nordstrom, who had been out of work herself and struggling to pay bills, had just started a new job in Boston. Her T stop exited at Park Street, across from where Bob Wright, homeless and disabled, regularly stationed himself in a nook in front of the Park Street Church.
At first, Nordstrom stayed on her side of the street, too uncomfortable to cross over to say hello. She was not one to approach a stranger. Still, her pastor's words kept coming back to her. "He said in order to get into heaven, you need a note from the poor," she said. In her daily journal, Nordstrom wrote: "Walking in Boston each day, I encounter so many of these seemingly invisible souls . . . left to fend for themselves on the streets or in shelters."
But this man wasn't the kind to "jingle a cup," she said. "Bob had an old cigar box in front of him, and a clamshell full of seed for the birds. He also had two signs. One said 'Homeless by fire' and the other said 'Smile, it's the law.' "
One day, Nordstrom got the nerve to cross the street. "I handed some quarters directly to him," Nordstrom said. "He took my fingers for a moment and said, 'Thank you, ma'am,' and then let go. A few days later, I told him I was sorry for his troubles." And so began a relationship that, over time, would deepen into a friendship.
Over the next couple of years, Nordstrom slowly learned Wright's history. He had once been a roofer, working with copper and slate. His 12-year stint on the streets began in 1995, when he was burned out of a rooming house in Framingham. "It was a terrible winter," Wright recalled recently. He soon ventured to Boston, and has been on his corner in front of the Park Street Church ever since.
Wright said he was confident he could survive on the streets, since he and his late brother had done so as children. "We grew up in the Home for Little Wanderers and a whole slew of foster homes, which we regularly ran away from," he explained. In winter, Wright would build an igloo to sleep in, or just burrow into a snow bank; sometimes he slept in the subway. MBTA police didn't roust him out because he wasn't a troublemaker, he said.
He foraged for meals in dumpsters, once contracting E. coli and ending up in the hospital. Wright would go to soup kitchens, but he stayed away from shelters, afraid his few possessions would be stolen by other homeless there. Like many homeless, he set up camp beneath the Expressway.
"Mostly my kingdom was on my back," Wright said. "What I couldn't carry, I would bury in five-gallon buckets with plastic lids in the Big Dig." Some of his stuff, he said, is still out there.
Despite the differences between them, Nordstrom and Wright, both in their mid-50s, have things in common. "We're both old hippies," Nordstrom said. They also share a love of music, she said, and "talked about Fleetwood Mac."
After a few weeks of conversing with Wright - who suffers from myriad ailments, including diabetes - Nordstrom told a fellow congregation member and friend, Sue Straley, about him. Straley immediately contributed to the cause. The two gave Wright a $20 gift card to a bagel shop near his Park Street spot. Wright was thankful, but subsequently horrified to find out a bagel and coffee cost about $6 of his total.
"He said he lives on $3 a day," Straley said. "I guess it was like giving somebody a Brooks Brothers shirt when they simply need some clothing. We decided we really needed to listen to him because we didn't know his world."
The pair focused on practical items. Their next purchase - a big hit - was "instant heat" packs to protect against frostbite. "Bob is really proud that he still has his toes," she said. "Many of the homeless don't." Nordstrom and Straley also brought Wright grocery store gift cards.
Sometimes Wright would drop out of sight, worrying Nordstrom and a Boston civil rights attorney, Jonathan Margolis, who had also befriended him. "There were days when we didn't know where he was, or if he was even still alive," Nordstrom said.
Margolis and Nordstrom would e-mail each other until one of them located their friend. He usually turned up in a hospital.
Last August, Wright began a long stay at Massachusetts General Hospital that started with a kidney infection and was complicated by his diabetes. Nordstrom and Margolis took turns visiting.
"There was an increased sense of urgency to get his housing application approved," Nordstrom wrote in her journal. Margolis used his influence as an attorney to expedite the process.
By the time Wright was released from MGH, he had a furnished apartment waiting for him in an old converted schoolhouse on Ruggles Street. Ruggles Affordable Assisted Living Community contains 43 studio apartments, the fruit of a collaborative effort of New Communities Services, Inc., New Atlantic Development Corporation, and Hearth, a nonprofit devoted to ending elderly homelessness.
Wright's Social Security and disability benefits cover rent and meals. The staff oversees his medication. When he was shown his new apartment, Wright could barely believe his good fortune. "I just sat on the bed waiting for them to come back and say I had to leave," he said.
Now, he has settled in to a routine, taking the bus from his apartment down to Park Street, where, most days, he settles in his usual spot.
In her journal, Nordstrom concludes, "He still sits and reads a paperback book and greets 'the regulars,' especially the children, but now he only places one sign on the sidewalk next to him, that admonishes all to obey the law and smile."
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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