By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
Debbie had a stable, good-paying job. She was a night nurse at a hospital in Boston. Some of the last vacations she took were pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Oberammergau to see the passion play, and Rome, and a Caribbean cruise. Having never married, Debbie was supporting herself well.
Shortly after she had moved from the mid-west to Boston as a young women, Debbie began drinking. Later she added drugs to her drinking. When her life began bottoming out, she began frequenting AA, something she does to this day. She has been sober ever since. Through the help of a local Boston priest, Debbie found her way back to the Catholic faith. Eventually, she became a Eucharistic minister at her parish, and was active in the Cursillo movement. Things were going well.
Then the unthinkable happened. About ten years ago, soon after the death of one of her parents, Debbie lost her job. She spoke about what happened with Sr Bernadette.
“I took a while off. After about a year, I started job hunting and just couldn't get anything, at which point, my depression kicked in. Then I basically sat at home till the money ran out. I can remember every once in a while thinking, ‘the money’s going to be gone’. And sure enough it was. It was not long after that that I had to leave the apartment. I lived in my car for three years and now I've been in the shelter for about ten months.”
In the shelter during Covid-19
Shelters in the U.S. adopted precautionary measures to prevent Covid-19 from spreading among their guests. However, as Debbie tells us, there is only so much that can be done when those living in shelters at such close quarters.
“Well, at first it was social distancing when you went outside. But in the shelter, we really were not able to – I mean there was a lot of washing hands, they put up screens between the beds to try and help in that manner. But during the evening, we were all in one room sitting at tables together. Eventually the virus got into the shelter. It was just a matter of time. We knew it would.”
Debbie’s worst fear became reality on Monday. She discovered she had been exposed to the coronavirus. When she found out that she was going to be moved to an unknown facility, shock set in.
“I was kind of in shock. So I did, in a sense, tell on myself because rumors were running rampant. We had a meeting with the director who said, ‘yes, a person was positive.’ Then they had pulled a bunch of people out that they knew were exposed. They hadn't highlighted me, but I knew I sat next to the person I'd been hearing. And I finally went into the office to talk to someone and said, ‘I know you can't tell me but this is the name I keep hearing and I sat next to them’. And the response was, ‘if you're that concerned, go and see the nurse.’ And it was said in such a way that I thought, ‘Uh, oh, I better go.’ And then after that it's pretty much a blur. A lot of ‘Yeah, you're going to go to quarantine. We're going to put you somewhere’, and then just sitting for a very long time and waiting.”
Debbie was quickly isolated and kept waiting until transportation arrived to take her – somewhere. She was not allowed to gather her own things from her locker. One of the women working in the shelter got her things from her shelter. So where did Debbie end up?
“I'm at what used to be a rehabilitation center in a part of Boston. It's been closed down for I'm not sure how long, for quite a while. They reopened it specifically for this, to have a place to put patients. All of us here are in quarantine, we’ve been exposed. There are no known cases and I don't think there will be any here. This is like a staging area. If you develop symptoms you go somewhere else.”
Care at the quarantine facility
Debbie describes the staff as “very nice” and caring. All of the people there keep to themselves for the most part. They are provided everything they need, and then some, as Debbie describes.
“Basically, you stay in your room. If you come out in the hallway, you have to wear a mask and gloves. A nurse comes through in the morning, checks our vital signs and then asks us a whole slew of questions: ‘Are you coughing? Are you achy?’ Anything about our history. ‘Are you short of breath?’ and any of the symptoms – they really run through the whole list of them. And then we're really kind of honor bound to answer honestly. There is a doctor on premises.
“[The staff], they're very nice. They provide meals. They come through constantly checking on us, ‘Are you okay?’ Several of us don't have night clothes because, you know, you get whipped out of a shelter that provides things for you…. They're working to get things for us that we need. They're offering us books, [playing] cards. They seem to care, they really do. I'm very comfortable with them.”
The ever-present question on the mind of a homeless person is, “what about tomorrow”? I asked Debbie where she will go once she is out of quarantine.
“I will go back to the shelter. I hope. Some people are being farmed out. They're opening up dorms that are unused at universities and that kind of thing. So that way they alleviate the crowding in the shelters. I'm hoping that I will go back to the shelter I was in. My things are there.”
Counting on prayer
Just prior to the beginning of our interview, Debbie told me that she is so grateful that people are praying for her. As soon as the interview was over, she told me that she was going to add her name to some prayer lists over the internet. Her last words on the interview were also about prayer:
“I'm very pleased that so many people are praying for me and I hope to stay healthy.”
I am sure that Debbie will be pleased to know that you, too, will pray for her, and for other homeless people like her.