Guest Op-Ed: Erica, Empathy, and the Independence

By Tracy Iannelli 

My friend Erica is homeless. When I met her, she was sleeping in her car with her feral dog, Bert. Earlier, Erica lived in the woods with him. She told me she was an attorney, owned a restaurant in Mississippi, taught yoga, and had family all over the United States. Later, I realized that at least two of these statements were untrue. What was true— Bert did bit her hand, breaking her fingers.  Erica does not have health insurance. Someone set the bone for her, and provided medication, i.e. drugs.

Erica is a beautiful young woman. One day, her friend Jess offered her a room in her home.  In exchange, Jess set conditions. Erica could not use drugs, or drink. She had to get a job. She had to see a mental health professional.  This was the “quid pro quo.”

Erica agreed and moved into with Jess. She taught yoga in an upscale studio and was fantastic at it—I was fortunate to practice with her.  For six months, Erica lived in the world of normalcy. I had high hopes, and gave her money. We shared email addresses, and kept in touch.

Through my friendship with Erica, I saw another face of homelessness, beyond the boogeyman that some might fear. She is ethereal, consumed with anxiety, morphing in and out of a routine existence. My affection for her led to understanding; Erica struggles to deal with life. She lacks those skills that are innate to many of us. I am certain there is trauma in her past. Situations that are relatively easy to navigate, confound her. She breaks my heart.

It is partially through the lens of knowing Erica, that I view the Constitution Inn conversion, now called the Independence.  The more current the data, the more alarming it becomes. Communities who embrace harm reduction strategies; or offer treatment without mandating it, and abstain from testing accountability—they will experience 50 to 90 percent recidivism, or re-lapse. This fact is medically confirmed, and was stated by the proponents.

A January 31, New York Times article, discussing the homeless experience in San Francisco, documented the overdose rate, noting it has risen to double the national average.  I understand that the approach proposed at the Independence will be similarly structured. Allowing people to use within the four walls is labelled de-stigmatization, but rapidly escalating death rates suggest that it may become tragic.  If residents are receiving subsidies, how is it permissible to allow them to use drugs? Isn’t it wise to monitor how they are doing medically?  Bodily autonomy is not solely the province of the user—continued drug use brings the user closer to death, encourages dealers, and endangers others.

 While the Independence states there is no illegal drug use permitted, it will not test its’ residents. Identifying people who have relapsed, or are slipping back into mental illness, would enable the proponents to determine the most effective intervention. Without that safety net, negative impacts will become more frequent, and increasingly harmful. This is a flawed strategy in a neighborhood without the resources to fix it. The West End would be a better fit.

A Roxbury neighbor stated frankly, in a recent WBZ/CBS report on migrant relocation, that “Empathy and frustration are not mutually exclusive.”  The homeless population is varied, comprised of migrants, substance abusers, alcoholics, people with mental health issues, disabilities, trauma, and poverty—often with more than one condition. Therefore, the need for customized, and coordinated care is necessary beyond housing. That care is currently optional at the Independence.

Charlestown has first-hand knowledge of the substance use crisis. We know that if all it took were love and a home, that no Charlestown family would have experienced the loss to overdose.  And, we know that the Independence is not a treatment center, nor should it be. We believe that mixing 160 residents–some in permanent supportive housing, others in affordable housing– could be a problematic combination. The proponents have not shared any data that shows otherwise.

It’s important to continue Erica’s story to understand these complexities. Sadly, her dog died of old age. I saw her that day, and she was inconsolable, in tears. I was afraid she would harm herself. The next day Erica quit her job, and announced that she was driving across country in the same car that she lived in. The last I heard, she made it half way. Since then, emails have gone unanswered. A mutual friend discovered that Erica made it to San Francisco. She was not with friends, but she was with other people. My fear is that those people are a community of other traumatized humans who are on the street, or under a bridge, or in a shelter somewhere. I fear she is lost.

 Our city and state must balance our collective empathy and compassion with the most up to date science, incorporating transparent, measurable requirements that ensure better outcomes for all. It is clear that a comprehensive answer lies well beyond a place to live, as Housing First supporters maintain.  More recently, there is evidence that sustained treatment prior to what can be the overwhelming responsibility of a home, is gaining traction. The Independence does not require this.

 A path to recovery identifies underlying causes, while providing care and aftercare. Regaining control over a life demands the resolve to undertake evidence- based treatments.  Instead of public service housing, let’s formalize the commitment from the person seeking housing. The goal then becomes increasing affordable housing, while investing in those candidates- resulting in less permanent supportive housing.

 I do not know how Erica’s story will end.  The pull of homelessness can be strong, and changing behavior takes time and resources. If only Erica, and those around her, could have continued her journey for a little while longer.  If only.

Tracy Iannelli is a resident of Charlestown.

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