In his March 31 column about Preble Street’s proposed healing center, Bill Nemitz told the story of Jessica Lewin, a victim of trafficking who would benefit from such a center. What he did not explore was the proposed location of this new shelter – in Bayside, at 55 Portland St., 500 feet from the Preble Street Resource Center and the well-documented disorder in the surrounding area.

It’s hard to imagine a less healing environment, and I couldn’t help but think of an encounter I had with another terribly vulnerable woman, one who was struggling and seeking help in Bayside.

About a year and a half ago, this woman walked down my driveway and burglarized my unlocked truck, opening the glove box and console, checking behind the visors and looking in the pockets of the doors for anything of value. The incident was caught by surveillance cameras, and the responding officer recognized her. Though it was not a major incident, I felt violated. I made a report and she was charged with burglary.

Several months later, the District Attorney’s Office contacted me. The burglary was a probation violation, and the woman had already served over 30 days in jail. She was now living in another county, had a job and had been sober for six months. For the first time in a long time she was doing well. Her attorney was seeking to have the burglary charges dismissed so that her progress wouldn’t be ruined by another stint in jail. I was asked if I’d be open to restorative justice: I could meet with her and talk about what happened. I was intrigued. I wanted her to succeed, and I wanted to know her story.

It was sadly familiar. She had struggled with substance abuse for years and had many prior incidents on her record. She’d lost custody of more than one child. She said she was high at the time of the burglary, and didn’t remember it at all. She told me she was shown the video footage, and as we talked she broke down, describing the shame and regret she felt watching herself rifling through a stranger’s belongings, looking for anything that she could sell for drugs. She was truly remorseful.

She also spoke of her progress, and showed pride in keeping a job and staying sober. I could tell she really was trying, and I teared up, too. I wondered why she was doing better this time. She said it was because she had escaped the neighborhood where so many of her struggles had played out. “I can’t come back here,” she told me. “I can’t stay sober in Bayside.”

I have heard many versions of those words, from both men and women, all conveying the same sentiment: Recovery from homelessness, trauma and addiction is hard, and the situation in Bayside makes it harder.

It worries and frustrates me that the best that women like her and like Jessica Lewin are to be offered is yet another shelter in a legitimately overwhelmed neighborhood where there is so much potential to remind and retraumatize them. What message does that send? We have all seen what happens when the vulnerable are marginalized, when social services are shoehorned into one area that is then left to carry the weight for an entire city and beyond. Trauma becomes expected and recursive. Everyone starts to believe that this is what homelessness has to look like, and we shouldn’t expect anything better or anywhere better. Everyone suffers.

Zoning for emergency shelters was recently expanded to help relieve that suffering and to ensure our social services maximize success in recovery and re-entry for our city’s most vulnerable. The City Council expanded shelter zoning beyond Bayside and 55 Portland St., and for good reason – there may be help here, but very little opportunity for healing until the pressure of the overwhelmed city shelter and Preble Street Resource Center and soup kitchen is relieved.

The women Preble Street seeks to serve desperately need shelter and healing. They deserve to find that shelter in a place that makes healing easier, not harder.

 


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