EPISODE TWO: A CONVERSATION WITH TRACY KIDDER ABOUT HIS BOOK ROUGH SLEEPERS AND THE INTERSECTION OF HEALTHCARE AND HOMELESSNESS
Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author, Rough Sleepers
Duane Vaughn, Executive Director, Shelters of Saratoga
Amy Hughes, Board Member and Shelters of Saratoga Volunteer
Tracy Kidder (TK): I mean, they really provide good medicine, it’s good stuff, but it isn’t enough. And I think that’s the other thing to say about this, that medicine alone, and even medicine broadly defined like this, they ultimately can’t solve this problem, not by itself.
INTRODUCTION: Welcome to Crossroads, the Shelters of Saratoga podcast, giving a voice to the many different challenges of homelessness in our community. Throughout our podcast series, we’ll be shining a light on the perception versus the reality of homelessness in the greater Saratoga community. The issues we’ll be talking about are more than a bed, or a cot, or a roof. The reality is that homelessness is an intricate ecosystem, including mental and physical health, public safety, food security, resource navigation, community engagement, and longer-term sustainable housing solutions. However, perhaps most important, is recognizing that the majority of the challenges of the homeless in our community are invisible.
We are at a Crossroads, where the challenges of homelessness intersect.
DUANE VAUGHN (DV): Hello and welcome to Crossroads, the Shelters of Saratoga podcast. I’m Duane Vaughn, Executive Director of Shelters of Saratoga, and I’m with Amy Hughes, one of our board members and longtime shelter volunteer. Amy, good afternoon.
AMY HUGHES (AH): Good afternoon, Duane.
DV: We are delighted to welcome Pulitzer Prize winning and New York Times bestselling author Tracy Kidder to our podcast today. Tracy’s new book, Rough Sleepers, profiles Dr. Jim O ‘Connell and his mission to bring healing to homeless people. The book is a testament to Dr. Jim and his team at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless program, which he started in the mid -80s. Rough sleepers refers to the people who sleep outside, on the street. The term comes from 19th century British slang for people who sleep in rough conditions. As one book review offered: “…in Rough Sleepers, Kidder documents the three years he spent with the team that cares for Boston’s homeless population, making rounds with Dr. Jim O’Connell and his van late into the night. They treated people on the street or got them into hospitals and clinics to receive care. They offered blankets and food.” It is extraordinary storytelling about this incredible group of people, including the program street team, the nurses and the program’s providers, but also the resilient people they care for. We have Tracy Kidder on the phone with us today. Tracy? I have so many questions because I have to tell you that the book was extremely impactful. I have with me Amy Hughes on the podcast today and Amy is a long-time volunteer and one of my board members.
AH: Good afternoon.
DV: As I had stated earlier, I think that the book was extremely impactful for me because I found ways to hopefully make myself a better executive director, a better service provider to our community, and that’s where I saw such a huge impact in your storytelling. You know, how did Dr. Jim, how did he change the community’s vision and actions in dealing with the homeless?
TK: One of the things that’s interesting about that to me is that Jim has a very mild manner, although he can be forceful, but in a very mild-mannered way. And he’s very, he doesn’t much like confrontation, he’ll accept it if he absolutely has to. But it fit pretty well with the job that he found himself doing, ultimately, particularly when you talk about the community and especially when it comes to politicians and legislators and so on, and directors of shelters, and he realized early on, and again, this suited him, that if he went banging on people’s doors and said, “This is outrageous, you can’t do this,” it wasn’t going to get very far.
DV: I noticed in the book that you didn’t spend or didn’t have to spend a lot of time talking about getting buy-in from the politicos, getting, you know, from the grantors that the money was coming in, especially in the beginning. And I kind of took that as, “Wow, I’m so glad that he didn’t have to fight that fight,” or at least I was interpreting it that way.
TK: I think that’s correct.
AH: I was just going to say, I think that what struck me in the book is that there were, he had more trouble convincing the people that were already in roles of working with the homeless that this was a program that would be beneficial to them.
TK: I think that’s probably true.
AH: There seemed to be a little bit of territorialism when it came to the homeless population.
TK: I think that’s probably right. I think that the nurses who were so resistant that he’s even, you know, going to work at Pine Street Inn clinic were really wonderful people, really. You know, they just were really furious about the way in which homeless men had been treated in the hospitals. And then, you know, they were nurses who were not particularly fond of doctors, that’s for sure. You know, because they had seen bad stuff from them. He tells a wonderful story about what I didn’t have room for, about going to the legislature early on in order to get help. By this time, he had sort of shed his doctor’s uniform of jacket and tie, and he showed up over at the state house without jacket and tie. It turned out that they, the head of the Senate, William Bulger, was willing to meet with him, but he was on the Senate floor, and he couldn’t go in there without a jacket and tie, so he had to borrow a jacket. And the jacket was much too small for him, so it was almost, the sleeves were up around his elbows. But it worked out all right. And the fact is that William Bulger really was eager, I mean, he was just astonished that a doctor, a real doctor, you know, much less one from Mass General was willing to work with, you know, be a doctor to homeless people.
DV: When you talked about, you were saying there, talking about the nurses, and one thing that I noticed in the book is there was a lot of strong, bold, powerful women that had a very big impact on the programs that Dr. Jim was involved with. And, you know, Barbara, of course, is one of the best.
TK: Particularly her, and others, too.
DV: Because Becky and Julie and the names go on and on and it just seemed like they were so invested in this. And I think that they were very cautious, I think, in the beginning. It appeared when Dr. Jim became involved.
AH: Were you surprised at the number of women that were running programs?
TK: I was at first. And I remember being in one of those meetings of the whole management team. I think it was about 75 percent women. And one thing that I noticed, and I remember speaking a lot to Julie about this, I just noticed that people didn’t yell at each other, you know. And I, you know, I’d done a little, I’d done, spent some time in a couple of organizations that this was unusual in my experience. It seemed to me that there was a definite, and in the best sense, feminine aura to this whole deal. Not softies. You know, Barbara, Barbara McGuinness was not, you know, soft or yielding. And, you know, all day we’re going to, she was a tough, tough woman, but she was also kind and considerate and smart. I mean, that’s what I really have in mind. The kinds of people who went into this work wanted to be there. I’m pretty old now, and I’ve seen the world from various angles. And I would be kind of happy if our country were run by women now. We were given a chance to see if they couldn’t do it a little better.
DV: Talking more about Barbara, you know, I noticed that a lot of the women were very grounding to the program. So like you had a quote in your book where Barbara says, “Hey, what are we going to do about the problem of homelessness?” And Barbara says, “Let’s take care of the folks we got here right now.”
TK: The thing, which I think is really significant of, I think what you, I’m quite sure that what you meant is people who come here with this great, this great often American notions of we’re going to fix everything and we’re going to do it right away. They’re not going to last. The work itself of trying to help people who are, or come to you so very ill, these people are already pretty ill, so their medical problems are complicated, their social problems are tremendously complicated. Barbara was just saying, “Look, we got to have, just make this a job people like to do.” And I think that’s what Jim set out to do. We don’t want saints and zealots.
AH: On your, with the quote that you mentioned about, you know, we don’t want saints and zealots, we want flawed human beings who do their jobs. Just make this an ordinary job that people like to do. That’s one of the, that’s actually one of our favorite quotes, and Duane and I have both been discussing this at length, but it’s, we see that in the people that work here at Shelters of Saratoga. We see their passion. We don’t pay them very much and our volunteers that come in, they don’t get paid anything and yet they come because they believe in what it is we’re doing, they believe in the mission of the shelter, they believe that one person can make a difference. And I think we see that in your book of when you’re talking about these amazing nurses with these women that ran shelters single-handedly and Dr. Jim, these are people that just wanted to make a difference. They wanted to have an impact on a population that struggles. Was there anyone who really stood out other than the main characters we’ve seen through the book? Was there someone maybe you didn’t talk about that was a volunteer or an employee who you saw as having a big impact?
TK: There were all kinds of people on the street team. There was a young volunteer, he’s in medical school now, a very sweet guy, very quiet, who was a volunteer for a long time while he was finishing up college, I guess, undergraduate work. And he was the kind of guy who you never noticed really, not too much, because he would simply see things that weren’t being done and he’d just go. And he got to know the patients, a lot of the patients just loved him. The psychiatrist on the team, Eileen Riley, she’d been on for a long time, but invariably she was working behind the scenes to try to get people to the services that did exist. And I may say a little bit about her, you know, I think I should, I tell you a little story about her looking at under the blanket to make sure this woman there, this schizophrenic woman is okay, but not interfering, not pink-papering this woman, not getting her into court and stuff, because, you know, knowing that if she did that she’d never have a chance to do anything for that woman. There were lots of people like that. And the one thing that I would say about all of it is that it sounds like it is a cliche, but it has to be a whole community surrounding an operation like this. You can’t expect everyone in the wider community to care or even to want to have this done. I mean, there’ll be some active opposition, but you do need a sort of community. There were whole bunches of people and there were wonderful volunteers who came in. You don’t want saints and zealots, but we want ordinary people, but ordinary people get discouraged sometimes.
AH: Oh, absolutely, they get discouraged.
TK: And it’s even worse when you see people, you’ve made good friends among homeless people and they die.
DV: When I looked at that, that part of the book where you were talking about saints and zealots, one of my concerns has always been, you know, if we get staff that come in, you know, it’s the first time they’re working in this type of an environment, and they get so invested that they burn themselves out. And that’s always been a concern of mine, is that, you know, we got to take it one day at a time and that’s it. And I want to double back a little bit where you really stress in the book about the importance of trust in relationships and how that’s built, you know it, right, I think it’s the second chapter. We talk about the feet soaking which is such a powerful words that you put in there that is it was hugely impactful to us because it makes us take a stop, you know, makes us stop and say we can’t get to this point, until we get we start here and to bring it down and I thought that that was critically important in which makes this this work of yours such a must read. So could you talk a little bit more about that?
TK: I think one of the things that Jim would emphasize constantly, it was it was really when he talked about there being joy in this work. And he would, which was not which is not the same thing as happiness, of course. What he said to me one time. This is a system of friends. And that’s what the joy comes from I think.
AH: I think joy, the joy also comes from seeing the success. Seeing one person get into recovery get into housing get an apartment, have continued health care I mean, that’s where you get the joy and that’s what keeps you moving forward.
TK: But you have to also figure out how to withstand those times when you feel like you fail, or when someone relapses and I think that’s when this business of the system of friends comes in. It’s a friendship among all the providers and among the providers and the patients. And it’s something that he was told not to do in medical school, you know, be friendly but not a friend. But almost every decision that Jim makes proceeds from the question of: how does this affect my patients? How does it benefit them or hurt them? And so I think is you know, if you have that patient-oriented, patient-centered vision to start with, that’s what foot washing is about. Heck, think about it. How hard is it to be homeless? Where does it hurt the most probably? It’s in your feet. They still have a foot-washing clinic by the way at the St. Francis House.
DV: So do you think this kind of embodies what you’re saying when you say let them into your life?
TK: Yeah, I think it I think you do have to at least decide and you know, and it’s kind of inevitable anyway, I did see some people there who didn’t work out, didn’t stay around and I think they I think it was largely because they weren’t willing to do that. I mean, I’m thinking of Joanne, my favorite one, the one who tells the Harvard medical students not to be shit-head doctors.
AH: Oh, yes.
TK: And you know, I love her and she’s still going strong and still on the board and so on but if we, if you, I think Jim himself has said this, we have to equip ourselves for you know, we’re doing a good, if we’re doing a good job part of what we’re doing is making someone a lot happier than they would be otherwise. We’re not necessarily making them better. We’re not necessarily making it possible for them to be housed permanently.
DV: We’ll be back in about a minute to continue our conversation with Tracy Kidder, author of Rough Sleepers, a profile of Dr. Jim O ‘Connell and his decades-long commitment to bring healing to people facing homelessness.
ROSEMARY ROYCE: Hello, I’m Rosemary Royce. I serve as the director of development and marketing at Shelters of Saratoga. Our podcast has a two-fold mission, first to illuminate the complex issues surrounding homelessness. And second to foster a better understanding about how homelessness affects individuals whose lives have been dramatically disrupted, often outside their control. There’s more than meets the eye. If you have a question or a comment write to us at crossroads at sheltersofsaratoga.org. And if you like what we’re doing with Crossroads, please share with your friends. Your support is important and always welcomed.
DV: We’re back. I’m Duane Vaughn, executive director of Shelters of Saratoga. I’m here with Amy Hughes one of our board members and longtime shelter volunteer. We’re having a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder, talking about his new book, Rough Sleepers and the parallels we can draw between what he witnessed in Boston and what we see every day here in Saratoga.
AH: I think the thing that is a running theme throughout the book is this need to build relationships, this need to connect both within the team, within the teams of the other organizations and then with the homeless. And I just see that throughout your book, this incredible power of trust and relationship that’s evident through Dr. Jim and his team.
TK: And then you think about once you get to know these people, that’s another reason, another really good important reason to get to know them because you get to know their stories, at least the ones they’re willing to tell. And from the other psychiatrist who was on the team when I got there, who’s retired now, Jim Bonner, he had been at this work a long, long time. He said, he figured that about 75% of his patients had suffered really severely traumatic childhoods. Jim thought the number, this percentage was a little bit higher, which is a horrifying thought. But I mean, some of the stories you get, so when Jim says, look, we’re trying to provide what you, society didn’t provide, security, education, I mean, of the rough sleepers, an alarming percentage are illiterate.
AH: Yes. That was a stunning number when I read that in the book.
TK: And the rate at which they die, I mean, so what we have is a little, is a catastrophe, you know, I mean, I’m not reaching back for the justifications for doing this work. I think they’re fairly obvious just on their in their own terms. But if we think about this as a public health issue, and also as about a warning to our country, I mean, the fact that this problem is growing bigger suggests what I think is true, which is it isn’t a problem. It’s a whole set of problems that have coalesced into this one, you know, where we simply don’t have enough good housing that people can afford. And for, you know, whether that’s because the housing is too expensive, or because people aren’t getting paid enough, Jim talks about a prism being held up to American society and it’s refracting all of our worst problems, you know, from the criminal justice, the child abuse, you know, you name it.
DV: Well, Tracy, you do talk about numbers a few times in the book. And I’m glad actually, I’m actually glad you didn’t spend a lot of time on it. But, you know, there’s numbers that you give about death rates, four times the rate of normal adults in the US and, and rough sleepers at 10 times. And you also get into a little bit into the point in time count, right? The point in time count is an annual county-by-county metric used across the country. It’s a one-day count, a snapshot, almost like a one-day homeless census, to put a number on how many people are homeless in any given community at any point in time. It’s an important number used to calculate and distribute resources starting at the federal level, like HUD. The human services sector knows that this approach results in a significant undercount of the homeless, which from our point of view, results in underfunding and a misalignment of resources.
TK: Jim says, look it’s useful, it’s flawed technology, but it’s consistently flawed. In Boston, at least at this point, they do not count people, the homeless, rough sleepers who are either in prison or jail or emergency rooms. And that’s absurd. Also, I can’t tell you how many rough sleepers told me that, nobody knows where I sleep, and I’m not going to let anybody know, you know.
DV: I mean some people are not found for a reason for safety reasons or whatever that might be they’re impossible to count, we see that I think you know not just here in upstate New York, but we see that across the country too.
TK: And what bothers me about it a little bit is, I mean it is a cynical suspicion I have which is it, it’s a one night count, it’s bound to understate, grossly understate the actual numbers of people who are homeless, by one definition or another, homeless, and that’s that’s gotta be kind of convenient for politicians who find this embarrassing, you know. So I don’t like it that for that reason but just to say look there are a lot of homeless people here and you’re not seeing but it’s just a very small slice of them unless of course you live in Los Angeles, but you know, most of our cold city towns you’re not going to see, and you’re not even in Los Angeles get a sense of all the people who are sleeping on the sofas of friends and relatives and, or in God knows, all the people who live in desperate fear of becoming homeless, justifiable fear of becoming homeless.
DV: So I kind of catch through your story telling that you know homeless are often, I almost equate it the way you explain it, is they’re like ghosts fading in and out of the shadows that only we can see them, right, only the people that are in the field or, you know, working in human services they can see these people and they’re invisible to so many people regular citizens that that are walking about and they’ll see the one person panhandling or the you know or a one person that might be you know have a tent in the woods but don’t see the true picture of homelessness.
TK: That’s true but I also think that a lot of us, and I include myself in this, that you know I really find ways not to notice.
AH: Well, I know that when we’re having conversations with like our neighbors, and you referenced NIMBY, and of course, very often, especially in Saratoga Springs, which is a more upscale small town, people like to say that, well, you know, we don’t, we don’t have homeless in our neighborhood, like, well, but they do live behind the Lowes you go to, or they live behind the restaurant that you frequent, and they seem stunned to find out that there are individuals living behind businesses that they frequent and have no idea. And I think that that’s one of the things that you bring out is just the humanity of it, the need for us to start to notice.
TK: I think so, I mean, we, once you do notice, and once you do look, you know, once you do get to know some of the homeless people in your community, you have no choice, but to admit that they’re human beings, just as human as you are.
AH: Right, right. And some of their experiences that have caused them to become homeless are things that may happen to us, and we just brush it off, and we keep moving, but they have had, you know, a cavalcade of things happen, and they, or they don’t have the, like you mentioned, the illiteracy, they don’t have the education in order to figure out how to move past. They can’t navigate the Medicaid paperwork. They can’t figure out how to fill out Section 8 paperwork. All of that is, you get to a point where you, they give up, and in situations where you and I wouldn’t give up, we would keep pushing back and fighting forward, they don’t, they lose the will to continue to combat a system that is bigger than they are.
TK: I agree. Although it’s, you know, again, I mean, it’s such a complicated problem, and the people themselves are complicated, you know, they have so many different kinds of stories, but there are threads like that there, and I think, as my wife once pointed out to me, a lot of people haven’t been taught how to do the things we did, haven’t been given that extra leg up. And others who, you know, I think of one guy who really wanted to keep himself clean. And sometimes people do manage to do it, but in Boston, it’s really hard to, there aren’t any public bathrooms, you know. So we just kind of start to think of these people as incurably primitive or even alien, you know. They’re not really like us. And I think people can be quite ingenious. I think I was, too, in finding ways not to notice. Stepping over that guy in the, you know, lying on the street and, you know, not, it’s just smiling, maybe not even smiling at the woman whose sign is dissolving in the rain.
DV: So if I read things correctly, it seemed like Dr. Jim fairly immediately had to start to change how he thought about treatment. You know, it appeared that he got away from, well, here they have cancer. Let’s cure this cancer. But it seemed to gravitate as his length of time went on with doing his work that he said, I need to ease their pain. I need to make them comfortable. It almost seems like he was coming to terms with, I’m going to lose people.
TK: Yeah. But I think every doctor has to come to terms with that. It’s a question, in some cases, of degree, right? But at the same time, he had to find ways to recognize that there were things that just couldn’t prevent. And so it’s a double thing. But I wouldn’t say that he decided they shouldn’t be delivering first-class medicine. I think they are delivering first-class medicine. I mean, they really provide good medicine. It’s good stuff, but it doesn’t, it isn’t enough. And I think that’s the other thing to say about this, that medicine alone, and even medicine broadly defined like this, isn’t the ultimate, can’t solve this problem, not by itself, it’s an important component, but it can’t do it.
AH: Well, some of what you said when you were talking about the fact that it was almost like a third-world country and some of the diseases that they were seeing that your normal doctor in your upscale hospitals or doctor clinics aren’t going see, and yet they were seeing things like scurvy and things that I would never have expected to see in a population in our country in this day and age. And so much of that goes back to not only not getting basic healthcare, but also nutrition.
TK: It was, you know, stuff, you only see pictures of some of these things in medical school. Some of you just never heard of, you know? They’d never been trained to deal with this kind of, this level of structural violence, is probably the right word. But he did say to me once, you know, we’ve got some things really well under control here, you know, we’re not seeing outrageous instances of neglect that they were before. And I think he said, I think it’s something to celebrate. The death rates are still very high. And now cancer, I think it’s still just about at the top. I think because of fentanyl, that’s getting up there to be the number one.
DV: Sure. Well, Tracy, also in the book that there’s a topic that we talk about here locally, you know, especially when I’m out speaking and that the general community really struggles to wrap their head around it. And you explain it in your book, which nobody ever talks about, and that you pointed out that leaving the street to permanent housing could be terrifying. And I think the chapter is Death by Housing.
TK: Yes. And you’ve run into this, have you?
DV: Yes, absolutely. All the time.
TK: Jim would be glad to hear it because this is great. This is something that really has to be said.
DV: You know, we have in our agency, we have our Tonys and we have our BJs, you know? So it was really easy for me to relate to those pieces of the story and especially later in the book where you start to story tell more about the people that are getting these services, the homeless on the street and the rough sleepers. And, you know, we’ve seen that very protective person on the street that we’re working with and is more concerned about the people that he is on the street with. And then he gets into permanent housing and it self -destructs because he invites all his friends and because he wants to keep his friends warm. So that resonated very big with us.
TK: And he also, I mean, don’t forget loneliness is an enormous, which Amy brought up really a little while ago. This is a very lonely state to be homeless. Need your friends around you. I mean, this is, that’s a really consistent theme.
DV: Well, it’s just something that we see that’s kind of, and I think that the community, you know, the general public doesn’t understand that they sense this, well, wait a minute, they had an apartment. They have housing and why have they failed at that when they’re all set up?
TK: I remember Joanne telling me, you know, she got put in an apartment really before she was, she had forgotten in 30, you know, she’d been out on all the streets, but she had basically forgotten how to keep a, keep house even, how to pay a bill, how to write a check. She remembers, she remembers looking at, talking to her refrigerator, saying, “What am I supposed to do now?” And then inviting her friends. That’s the other things that become tremendously lonely or in a strange neighborhood. I remember Jim’s wife, Jill, telling me that, you know, one guy that they brought in and there was, the power wasn’t on yet, that was, wasn’t her fault, but anyway, and the guy was just terrified. And he didn’t have any friends around him, was a neighborhood he didn’t know, he just fled. But the housing was the point where the plague, and then there was the guy who was so spooked by being in an apartment and he went outside and recorded the sounds of the street so that he could sleep. There have been people who’ve come into apartments and pitch tents, you know. I mean, it takes a while, these are the activities of daily living that some people don’t know, or have forgotten entirely.
AH: One of the things that we run into here is we’ll get someone stably housed, they’ll have an apartment, and yet they still want to go to the downtown parking garage and hang out with their friends. And people are like, why are they here? They have a house, why do they still come and hang out here? It’s because they’ve built a community, and I think that’s one of the things that was very powerful in your book was showing this sense of community among the homeless population, not only through Tony and his leadership and his caring of individuals, but just in general, we really do them a disservice if we don’t recognize that it is a community. And while it’s not our community and it’s not one that we would choose, it’s one that they have built for relationship and trust and support and, you know, all those things, and not, it’s probably not particularly healthy, but it’s theirs.
TK: I remember, maybe you remember the little story I told about the guys who had, you know, incurable cancer of the throat and had a feeding tube and all. Jim had gotten into a good nursing home back in his old neighborhood, but he just couldn’t stand it. He had to go back to Pine Street Inn and drink with his friends. And he said, you know, and he said it really well to Jim: these are my people, these are the people I’ve spent most of my life with. What do you want me to do? Go sit in a nursing home with people who aren’t even talking to me?
DV: You also talked about stemming.
DV: Right, when you had one individual that you had, I believe you’d interviewed where he would allow people to punch him as hard as they could in the stomach for a dollar and the face for $5. And that immediately made me think about, are they suffering from trauma that they got very early in their life? And this is another way for them to be punished or punishing themselves. I just couldn’t, I had trouble understanding that.
TK: You know, the consequences of early trauma are getting pretty well documented. I mean, the ways in which they show up physiologically are pretty important and striking to me. I never, when I first heard about that, I thought, is that, can that be true? And apparently it really is true. You know, we talk about housing, housing, death by housing is one thing. We need housing. And I think housing first was a splendid idea. I think Jim does, I’m mostly just quoting Jim here or paraphrasing him. But it isn’t sufficient. For some people, it would be, decent housing that they could afford without, you know, giving up half their income. And by decent, I mean, properly situated too. I’m situated so that you can get to a job if that’s what you want or you can get, you can get some wholesome food.
AH: On the bus line, near a grocery store, all those things.
DV: Yeah, and those are things that we battle here, of course, because, you know, this is, our area is kind of big in hospitality and service industry. And vacations, things like that. And the people that are working those jobs are being forced further out into the country where they don’t have access to transportation, to daycare, to all those components that they need to be able to work. So, and we can talk about the affordable housing piece all the time. And my view has always been, are we at that point where this is an acceptable number, by whoever’s in charge, right? It’s our politicians or wherever that might say that, we know that we’re going to lose this amount of people and that’s okay. It needs to get worse before it gets better and that’s what kind of breaks our heart.
TK: It’s an awful thought because these numbers are growing. I mean, I went out to Nantucket with Jim earlier, early this summer to do a book fair there and we got asked to come to a little meeting, maybe about 30 concerned citizens. And we got an earful. Oh, no, there are no homeless people in Nantucket. Well, of course there are, but there are not. And, you know, and here’s the place where schoolteachers were sleeping in their cars, you know.
AH: Right. Well, and I think we see that everywhere where I know, you know, in the DC area, you’ll have people who have full-time jobs, but they sleep in their cars in the Walmart parking lot at night. And, you know, it’s, these are bigger problems that we’re not going to solve, but I think one of the things that I most appreciate about your books is that you take individuals, you write about individuals who are called to some kind of opportunity and they approach it with passion and they approach it with humanism and they, and you show the impact that one person can have on, on a situation that seems unsolvable. It’s with Dr. Jim, where he, he’s one person and yet his impact has been, has been huge. And I’m, I’m grateful for these evidences of hope and these evidences of, you know, each of us in our own little way, as we are making a difference in our communities, we’re making a difference. And I think that is, that’s key. And I love that about your writing.
TK: Thank you. I agree with that, but I should add one thing. I think I wrote somewhere, I think it was in the book about Mountains Beyond Mountains, that lives of service that required lives of support, they were, they weren’t acting without these giant, these great numbers of people helping them, you know, that it somehow was a one-man show.
AH: Right, but it was one man who came with, they came with a passion and they, and that passion was able to gather the right people at the right time to do the right job.
TK: And in Jim’s case, there were, there were, there were those women out there already, mostly women already, you know, the nurses, the people who were, who had created or running, running shelters or places for women and, I mean, for men and women who were homeless. I, you know, but, but, but it’s true. And I think, you know, on the other hand, you could say that without Jim O ‘Connell, things wouldn’t have turned out, I mean, not quite as much would have been done.
AH: I’m sure that there would have been somebody to come along, but, but their personalities were such that they were charismatic and in a way, not in a way where, you know, they’re cult leaders, but they are charismatic in a way that they were passionate about the work they took on and that’s catching. And I think, you know, we need to see that in our smaller communities as well. We need individuals who are just willing to do, you know, what I would call the next right thing. You know, just one foot in front of the other, doing the next right thing when it comes to helping a population that is not in a position, not that they don’t want to help themselves. They’re just not in a position to do that.
TK: That’s right. And, and, and also the fact that you’ve created a vehicle where people can easily come and say, “I want to help,” it’s so much, so much better to have some organization or organizations you can go to help rather than trying to invent it all, having to invent it all for yourself.
DV: So Tracy, you know, I think we’re coming to a close here and I wanted to make sure if you had any last message for us. But one thing that I wanted to really say to you is that I didn’t get what I thought I was going to get out of this book. I got so much more. And what it taught me, you know, even though I’ve been in the business for over 20 years, I gleaned on how I can be better at my job from this. And I think that was an unexpected discovery that really made me happy. Especially when it came to, you know, one of the big messages for me in this book is, you know, I just passed by somebody that may be in our program or in our shelter. And they put the white flag up and said, “I want to talk for a few minutes.” And maybe I said a few words in passing and I got to take that time to stop and give them that five, ten minutes, half an hour or whatever they need. And it’s not that I don’t want to. We get so concerned about staying on our schedules that it doesn’t break our day. And, you know what, it’s okay. Let’s break the day. Let’s do more work. And I thank you for that.
TK: Well, thanks. I’m glad to hear that. It had some of the same effect on me. I will not walk past people now without at least acknowledging that they’re there, you know.
AH: One of the things I wanted to also end with here, Tracy, is that prior to reading Rough Sleepers, I had read Dr. Jim’s book of essays that he had written over the course of his time there. And, you know, they were great. I enjoyed reading them. I thought they were very informative, and they, but they read like essays and you mentioned early on in our conversation that you really are a storyteller and you had in your book some of very similar stories as those essays and yet you brought them to life. You put flesh on these people. You put flesh on these stories and I really am grateful because there are not many authors who write nonfiction in a way that is so compelling. Your book was hard to put down and I really appreciate that and I appreciate, as Duane said, just the encouragement to do better.
TK: Thank you. Thanks both of you. It’s a pleasure to have talked with you. Thanks a lot for your interest and I do appreciate this and I’ll tell Jim about our conversation.
DV: Yeah, we’d love to be able to talk to him some time. That would be great. And you know, and thank you so much for taking the time today.
TK: You’re welcome. Thank you. Thanks for your interest. Thank you. Great to talk. Bye -bye.
AH: Bye -bye.
DV: Amy, thank you. I’m Duane Vaughn and this has been Crossroads, the Shelters of Saratoga podcast.
CLOSE: Crossroads is produced by Shelters of Saratoga, a non-profit human services agency serving the greater Saratoga area. Our mission is to transform the lives of our neighbors facing homelessness with support services, safe shelter, and a path to independence. Your support keeps our mission alive. Find out more about how you can help at sheltersofsaratoga .org.