Why I Winter Walk - A Founder's Perspective by Robyn Glaser

I was raised by parents who taught me to appreciate everyone, whatever their walk in life. My parents’ generosity is MASSIVE, and for as long as I can remember, it has compelled my own. I think of the many times my parents have said, “Robyn, you are way too generous!” I smile in those moments with such an intense knowing, thinking, Oh mom and dad, I’m just the apple that has not fallen far…!

I have also managed to surround myself personally and professionally with extraordinarily compassionate, generous and gracious people. I am really very good at that. A special talent, you might say. All of that inspires me to Do Good Be Good, Do Better Be Better (my personal motto).

I don’t know when the issues of the homeless first became important to me. I don’t remember anything in particular that inspired it. But one day, I just noticed. Then I couldn’t not notice it. And then I had to take active measures to play a part in addressing the needs of that community. Most of the time, those measures are really very small. Walking around with Dunkin Donut gift cards and passing them out to folks who look like they would appreciate a warm drink, something to eat or the luxury of an indoor bathroom. Stopping and spending a minute talking to someone who looks like they want to be heard. Noticing, observing and learning about that community to try to find ways to be of help and support.

Several years ago, I met Dr. Jim O’Connell, the President of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and he has become one of my most influential mentors and a very dear friend. About six months after meeting Jim, I joined him for my first of three (so far) “Midnight Rounds” on The Pine Street Inn Outreach Van. On the van, which travels through Boston’s neighborhoods each night from 9:00pm until 5:00am, PSI outreach workers and “Dr. Jim,” who rides along several times per week, provide clothing, food, blankets, medical assistance and compassion to the most vulnerable sector of the homeless population: the “rough sleepers,” or those who shun shelter life (many of whom are struggling with mental illness and/or addiction).

Being on the van is very eye opening. I cannot share reality-TV type stories with you from my times on the van. There was no heady drama, just somber and heartbreaking experiences because it is very hard to see people in those circumstances. From the get-go, a few things were clear to me:

· Many of our homeless neighbors have been homeless and/or on the street for a very, VERY long time. There are so many reasons for this — many of the folks I have spoken with while out on these rounds and otherwise are the first to tell you that they are homeless because they have an addiction to something, primarily alcohol or drugs. To put this in context, my third time on the Outreach Van was about two years after my first. On that trip, I saw the same individuals, in the same locations, that I saw on my first trip on the van.

· For many homeless individuals — with issues that are trickier and more complicated than most of us can comprehend — the options they have are not appealing enough to them. To be clear, the options are actually very good and continually getting better — hospital care at MGH, a warm bed for the night in The Barbara McInnis House at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, temporary-to-permanent housing, etc. — but they often generate little interest. The hold of alcohol and drugs — and the freedom needed to be in their hold — often outweigh the benefits of the better options. Each trip on the van, at least one individual said, “Dr. Jim, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sleep another night out here in the cold. I’m going to die.” When Dr. Jim told them he would find them a bed inside one of the shelters or in the McInnis House, most of them then came up with reasons why they couldn’t go that night, “but maybe tomorrow.”

· Many homeless individuals know well, and are very honest about, why they are in their circumstances. One night while on the van, we stopped at a center that was not meant to be an overnight shelter, but due to the weather and sheer numbers of folks requiring shelter, had become a short-term overnight facility for the winter. A single bathroom and no beds — everyone was on the floor, mostly on cardboard boxes (if they were lucky enough to have one). The first person I saw was a young woman who could not have been over 25. I approached her and asked if I could sit with her awhile. She moved her bags for me to sit across from her and, slurring her words and looking at me through eyes that could barely open because she was so high, answered my question, “Why are you here?” without any hesitation at all. “Because I am a heroin addict.” Within the next 5 minutes, I learned that she had a baby son who was being raised by her parents, and that she was sober while she was pregnant and for a few months after, but had now been back on the streets for almost a year. When I asked her if she missed her son, she cried a little and told me she had an appointment the next day for methadone treatment and temporary housing. As I sat with her, I was certain she wasn’t going to make that appointment. As I left her, I asked her to please make that appointment. I would have asked her to look me in the eye and promise she would make that appointment…but I knew she was too high to open her eyes to do that.

The foregoing is depressing, I know. It probably makes it seem like the problems are too large and unmanageable. I hope that instead you’ll see what I see: these are real people, with real struggles who know why they are in the situation they are in, and know that they have options and something for which to live a better life. If we see them, listen to them, and provide or invest in the resources for them, we can and will move the needle in profound ways, breaking the cycle of homelessness for them and their children.

This is what the Winter Walk is about for me. It is an opportunity to bring attention to the homeless community and the remarkable people who work tirelessly to support their needs, and to also give people like me who care about this issue an opportunity to get involved and learn more about, and help find ways to address, this critical social problem.

Please join me at the Winter Walk on Sunday, February 12, 2017. You can register easily right now by clicking on this link. At the event, you will have the opportunity to learn more and to meet some of the amazing change-makers who serve our community’s homeless population.

-Robyn Glaser, Co-founder, Winter Walk

Winter Walk