Why I (Winter) Walk: John's story

A formerly homeless man becomes an ambassador for the Winter Walk, drawing attention to the cold-weather challenges that face Boston's homeless

January 28, 2019

Guest post by Ari Barbanell, Executive Director, Winter Walk Boston

From Ari: 

As part of my work on Winter Walk, I am lucky to cross paths with incredible people who share their experiences and help gather community to walk together in our annual Winter Walk towards an end to homelessness in Greater Boston. I met John through our work with the organization common cathedral, a faith-based organization that is open to all, with programs and care for people experiencing homelessness, and meaningful opportunities for those who want to support un-housed individuals.  John and I are board members of common cathedral. John has been an amazing ambassador for the Winter Walk, helping to gather participants and spread the word. He also has his own story that lead him to the community we care about together, and he was kind enough to share a bit about himself and why he participates in the Winter Walk.  Here's John:

A group of people march down a snowy sidewalk, they are holding a large banner that says "Winter walk, ending homelessness is within our reach."

This February 10th, 2019, I will, for the second time, take part in Boston's annual Winter Walk.  I initially discovered the Walk due to my involvement with Ecclesia Ministries and common cathedral.  Tasked with manning the sign-up sheet for our church, and drumming up both participants and enthusiasm, I spent a good deal of time not only researching the particulars of the Walk, but also thinking about what the Winter Walk could accomplish.

While I have now been in my current Boston Housing Authority, or BHA, housing for just over 3 years, I spent the almost 5 years prior as a member of Boston's chronically homeless community.  Multiple shelters and daytime drop-in centers, and well as public libraries and transportation hubs became the indoors for me.  Much of my time was spent on the outside of even those doors, looking in. For the first time, I really noticed that there are locks on virtually everything.

By staying in private and city supported shelters, I was able to maintain a decent standard of personal hygiene; because I had a small bit of income, I could regularly do laundry and wear decent, if nondescript clothes.  If I was on the T next to you, or sitting at the same table at the BPL, it would not be immediately apparent to you that I was homeless.  Thus, I was able to almost neutrally observe the way that people experiencing homelessness are often treated by housed members of the public.

People who do seem or look as though they are unhoused or in poverty are so often treated as less than by folks who don't understand what they are going through.  Sadly, the VERY best outcome of any potential interaction an unhoused person experiences can often be to be ignored.  Many times, to be noticed is to invite ridicule or verbal abuse.  "Get a job."; "Get away from me."; or "I don't have any money."  (Even if one is not asking for it) - count upon those to be among the most heard comments.

What the Winter Walk does is create a single community, a shared experience, where people who have houses and people who sleep in shelters or outside, participate as equals.  It is an event, held in the middle of the coldest month of the year, that in many ways mirrors the daily experiences of people experiencing homelessness.  It raises needed funds, but so much more so, it raises needed empathy and awareness.  The Walk takes away invisibility from homelessness.

I know that the vast majority of folks who will participate in the Walk are people who would not denigrate unhoused people in the first place; who are in fact the first ones stepping up to help.  It is this mixed grouping together of everyone, housed and homeless, that gives purpose to the core activity - to stress the point, walking - that defines the Winter Walk

It is in joining to march with members of the chronically homeless community in this concrete, VISIBLE way, that the housed participants show the larger Boston community this:  It can be very hard to tell who does or who does not live in a house; who is or is not tired, sore, cold or hungry.   The invisibility of homelessness should not be a cloak of protection for the unhoused person, it should be a badge of shame worn by the larger community.  It is only by seeing the problem of chronic homelessness, in its assembled magnitude, that we can enter into the steady, if at times maddeningly slow, march to ending it.

The 2019 Winter Walk is scheduled for Sunday, February 10. The Winter Walk is a 2-mile march through the streets of Boston during one the coldest months of the winter, shoulder to shoulder as a housed and unhoused community. Following the Walk, participants gather on Copley Plaza for a breakfast and to hear stories from our homeless community, and some of the incredible people in our region working to prevent, support and end homelessness. Learn more and register at winterwalkboston.org.