Nearly 500 people turned up for an inspirational discussion of the new book “Rough Sleepers” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder in Woods Hole last month. The book chronicles Dr. Jim O’Connell and his work with people who sleep outside rather than in shelters, known as “rough sleepers.”
Housing Assistance CEO Alisa Magnotta led the discussion, which was held in the Clapp Auditorium at the Marine Biological Laboratory. The event was co-hosted by Housing Assistance and the Jewel Cobb Coalition, with proceeds benefiting Housing Assistance.
Author Tracy Kidder signed copies of “Rough Sleepers” before the discussion.
“I was astonished, charmed and appalled at this world that was right in plain sight,” said Kidder as he described his first van ride with Dr. O’Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and his staff. O’Connell himself has spent decades riding in a van equipped with hot food, clothing items and medical equipment to serve people living on the streets.
Kidder conducted his research for the book “Rough Sleepers” for five years, including times when he rode in the van almost every day and night.
“Like most Americans, I think I figured out ways of not noticing, but you can’t sustain that kind of feeling once you get to know these people,” he said. “Then you realize that they’re every bit as human and maybe in some ways a little more interesting than anyone else.”
Dr. O’Connell said he was a little surprised how willing most of his patients were to be interviewed by an author. “The folks that we were taking care of were honored and anxious to tell their stories,” he said. “Tracy took hours and hours of time talking to people who were really willing to share stuff, some real trauma. They were happy to have someone listening.”
When he graduated from Harvard Medical School, Dr. O’Connell planned to become an oncologist after spending one year working with Boston’s homeless. What he quickly learned from nurses who spent years working with the homeless is that the rough sleepers didn’t want to be treated by a doctor who would be gone in a year. They wanted the connections and trust that came from continuity of care.
Kidder’s portrayal of the people he met was heartbreaking yet heartwarming as he spoke about the pride, perseverance and hope of the beloved “Rough Sleeper” community. Dr. O’Connell touched listeners’ hearts as he talked about his quest to bring healing and dignity to this special group and the fondness he feels for each one of his patients.
“That’s when I realized this is exactly where I wanted to be,” he said. “My life is full of great turns that I didn’t expect.”
“It is about seeing,” said Magnotta. “Through this book, you get to see what our people see every day at Housing Assistance. These are people.”
She added that one of the most important traits for working with the homeless is perseverance. “Much of the outcome you have no control over, but you have to be willing to keep showing up,” she said.
Other speakers included Heidi Nelson, CEO of Duffy Health Center; Susan Mazzarella, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fall River; Ruth Gainer, director of the Jewel Cobb Action Coalition; and member of the Housing Assistance outreach team.
During the question-and-answer session, one audience member said he had met Dr. O’Connell when he was a medical student 37 years ago. “A lot of us put our toes in the water [in terms of helping the homeless]. You jumped into the ocean. Thank you for not drowning.”