A Soldier For the Home Front
By Adrian Walker, The Boston Globe
As James Patterson stood in the middle of Boylston Street in the Fenway on a snowy morning in 2006, evicted from squatting in a basement where his closest companions were rats, he had an revelation of sorts: He had sunk so low that things could only get better.
Homeless barely begins to describe the desperation in which the eloquent, well-educated, onetime trust fund baby had fallen. He was, as he put it this week, “out of money, out of bright ideas, and out of hustle.”
The bus he boarded took him to St. Francis House, a spot he was familiar with only from its proximity to his drug deals. The shelter had rules: He had to be sober, he had to work, and he had to check into an innovative housing program called HomeStart. What he didn’t know then was that HomeStart would eventually help to save his life.
HomeStart has helped hundreds of families teetering on the brink avoid losing their shelter. It also works with people who are already homeless to begin to rebuild their lives. There, Patterson, 47, met a no-nonsense counselor who met with him weekly, assigned him tasks to begin to pull himself together, and helped him move into permanent housing in just under a year.
“There wasn’t anything about my life that was sustainable,” Patterson said. “I needed to be shown a whole new way to live my life.”
How successful has his recovery been? He has been clean for nine years. In May, he graduated with a master’s degree in social work from Boston College. He’s working as a psychiatric social worker at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton. He gives speeches to people battling homelessness and addiction.
HomeStart is run by Linda Wood-Boyle, a Methodist minister who has spent decades helping homeless people get back on their feet. Her mission is to get people into permanent housing. That stability, she believes, alters people’s lives in a way that providing shelter beds, which she used to do, didn’t.
So her group negotiates with landlords on overdue rent. It tries to help families avoid the state’s network of homeless motels. And it helps people such as Patterson rebuild their lives, one piece at a time.
“Other agencies end the symptoms of homelessness, but we prevent it,” Wood-Boyle said.
To be sure, Patterson’s privileged background makes him far different from most homeless people. But his steep downward spiral was no different than that of many people who end up on the street.
From prep school he made his way to Northeastern, where he said he majored in shooting pool and swilling beer. He went into advertising sales and promotion after graduation, working for the Boston Phoenix and the Miller Brewing Co.
But he was introduced to methamphetamines in 1994, and it wasn’t long before drugs began to rule his life. His jobs got steadily worse. He inherited large sums of money at least three times, but that only forestalled disaster. “My aunt left me a six-figure trust fund in 2002,” he said. “It was gone in eight months.”
As his wealth evaporated, he got the dubious idea of selling drugs. “I was the worst drug dealer that ever lived,” he said. “Monkeys can’t sell bananas.
“It’s so ridiculous to think about on this side of things. Everyone I sold to is dead or in jail.”
Now he goes to meetings. He prays and meditates daily. Social work is his third career, he says, and the first that has ever fulfilled him. He looks at people who barely recognize where their lives have taken them, and he sees himself.
Saturday night he will be on stage at HomeStart’s annual dinner, explaining to an audience of 600 what the organization’s help has meant to him. “I got hope,” he said. “I got the opportunity here to build not just a good life but a life I love.”