Guest columnist Terrence McCarthy: ‘Rough Sleeper’ is our neighbor


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Published: 12-01-2023 12:55 PM

I just bought Tracy Kidder’s new book “Rough Sleepers.” The title refers to people.who are experiencing homelessness in the state’s capital city, Boston. Kidder’s focus is on Boston physician Jim O’Connell’s mission to help that city’s legions of rough sleepers.

This book reminded me of another book written by Kidder, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” which was set in Haiti, and whose main character was another doctor, Paul Farmer, whose heroic efforts saved the lives of many Haitians. “Mountains Beyond Mountains” was published in 2004. A North Adams native, Farmer died in his sleep of a heart attack in 2022. He was only 62 years old.

The publication of “Rough Sleepers” coincides with a situation my wife Donna and I have been dealing with recently. A neighbor of ours, I will call him M, has been rough sleeping under a tarp since his house burned down a week before Thanksgiving. M has had a rough go of it since we first met him a few years ago.

Having worked as a counselor and human rights officer on a locked psych unit at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield in the 1990s and early 2000s, I surmised M had some mental health issues. He was living with his father when we met him. But his dad died recently, and the word on our community’s grapevine was that the house M lived in with his dog had no water or electricity.

M didn’t appear to have any close family to speak of. He had no job, and, as far as we know, was not connected in any way with social services.

The day before Thanksgiving, Donna brought some hot food for M to eat And some food for his dog. M reported that the Red Cross had offered to help him out, provide him with shelter, but he refused this offer. Likely because he wouldn’t be able to bring his dog with him.

I’ve been communicating with neighbors, spreading the word about M’s plight. Several people have responded, and have joined us in our efforts to heal M, in our way.

Would there be a doctor, like Paul Farmer, or Jim O’Connell in this area? Maybe there is, and maybe one will read Tracy Kidder’s “Rough Sleepers,” or hear, through the grapevine, what some of M’s neighbors are trying to do.

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Emily Dickinson wrote: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” My hope is that this bird lands here. Sooner, not later.

Terrence McCarthy, an Easthampton native, is a writer who lives in North Carolina.