A doctor’s boarders: Dr. Jessica Bossie’s mission to help the homeless find the right house

Dr. Jessica Bossie talks about Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton and what they offer to the community they serve. The home offers a place for 16 chronically homeless individuals to come off the street and not have to go through the various shelters.

Dr. Jessica Bossie talks about Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton and what they offer to the community they serve. The home offers a place for 16 chronically homeless individuals to come off the street and not have to go through the various shelters. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Dr. Jessica Bossie talks with Tina Jarvenpaq, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton, and Tim Patterson, who were headed out for errands. “As a doctor who supported all different types of housing initiatives, you could see what wasn’t working,” says Bossie, 37, of Florence.

Dr. Jessica Bossie talks with Tina Jarvenpaq, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton, and Tim Patterson, who were headed out for errands. “As a doctor who supported all different types of housing initiatives, you could see what wasn’t working,” says Bossie, 37, of Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Dr. Jessica Bossie talks with Tina Jarvenpaq, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton before she goes out for errands.

Dr. Jessica Bossie talks with Tina Jarvenpaq, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton before she goes out for errands. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Cathy Mary Chagnon, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions, sits on her bed and talks about her relationship with Dr. Jessica Bossie, who runs the house 16 previously unhoused people. “Doc, you saved me another trip to the ER, I can’t thank you enough,” she said.

Cathy Mary Chagnon, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions, sits on her bed and talks about her relationship with Dr. Jessica Bossie, who runs the house 16 previously unhoused people. “Doc, you saved me another trip to the ER, I can’t thank you enough,” she said. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Isaac Brandes outside of Independent Housing Solutions in Northampton where he has lived for the past couple of years. After several years living on the streets, Brandes now sleeps in the renovated former office building operated by Independent Housing Solutions and has a job at a local restaurant.

Isaac Brandes outside of Independent Housing Solutions in Northampton where he has lived for the past couple of years. After several years living on the streets, Brandes now sleeps in the renovated former office building operated by Independent Housing Solutions and has a job at a local restaurant. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Isaac Brandes outside of Independent Housing Solutions in Northampton where he has lived for the past couple of years. After several years living on the streets, Brandes now sleeps in the renovated former office building operated by Independent Housing Solutions and has a job at a local restaurant.

Isaac Brandes outside of Independent Housing Solutions in Northampton where he has lived for the past couple of years. After several years living on the streets, Brandes now sleeps in the renovated former office building operated by Independent Housing Solutions and has a job at a local restaurant. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

After several years  on the streets, Isaac Brandes has been at Independent Housing Solutions in Northampton for the past couple of years  and has a job at a local restaurant.

After several years on the streets, Isaac Brandes has been at Independent Housing Solutions in Northampton for the past couple of years and has a job at a local restaurant.

 Tim Patterson and Tina Jarvenpaq, a resident at  Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton, get ready to go out to do  errands.

Tim Patterson and Tina Jarvenpaq, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton, get ready to go out to do errands. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Dr. Jessica Bossie  talks about Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton and what they offer to the community they serve. “We wanted to hit home the ‘Housing First’ approach and have residents come off the street and not have to go through the various shelters.”

Dr. Jessica Bossie talks about Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton and what they offer to the community they serve. “We wanted to hit home the ‘Housing First’ approach and have residents come off the street and not have to go through the various shelters.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

 Ricky Lapointe and Bob Sevard sit in Sevard’s room and watch TV at Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton. Sevard spent many nights on the streets before he got a spot at Independent Housing Solutions and said, “On the street thank God for the homeless people they really looked out for me.”

Ricky Lapointe and Bob Sevard sit in Sevard’s room and watch TV at Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton. Sevard spent many nights on the streets before he got a spot at Independent Housing Solutions and said, “On the street thank God for the homeless people they really looked out for me.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

 Ricky Lapointe, left, and Bob Sevard sit in Sevard’s room and watch TV at Independent Housing Solutions. Sevard spent many nights on the streets before he got a spot at the house. “I had a lot of people watching out for me,” he says. “Thank God for the homeless.”

Ricky Lapointe, left, and Bob Sevard sit in Sevard’s room and watch TV at Independent Housing Solutions. Sevard spent many nights on the streets before he got a spot at the house. “I had a lot of people watching out for me,” he says. “Thank God for the homeless.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Cathy Mary Chagnon, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions sits on her bed and talks about her relationship with Dr. Jessica Bossie.

Cathy Mary Chagnon, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions sits on her bed and talks about her relationship with Dr. Jessica Bossie. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Dr. Jessica Bossie  talks about Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton and what they offer to the community they serve. “We wanted to hit home the ‘Housing First’ approach and have residents come off the street and not have to go through the various shelters,” she sai

Dr. Jessica Bossie talks about Independent Housing Solutions on Franklin Street in Northampton and what they offer to the community they serve. “We wanted to hit home the ‘Housing First’ approach and have residents come off the street and not have to go through the various shelters,” she sai STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Cathy Mary Chagnon, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions, sits on her bed and talks about her relationship with Dr. Jessica Bossie. “Doc you saved me another trip to the ER, I can’t thank you enough,” she said.

Cathy Mary Chagnon, a resident at Independent Housing Solutions, sits on her bed and talks about her relationship with Dr. Jessica Bossie. “Doc you saved me another trip to the ER, I can’t thank you enough,” she said. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By BOB FLAHERTY

For the Gazette

Published: 06-21-2024 6:01 PM

Modified: 06-25-2024 9:46 AM


NORTHAMPTON — An address. Something so basic you’d rattle it off like the date of your birth. But try putting “tent by the river” or “under the overhang” on your next job application and see how many calls you get.

But a local physician, known for treating the homeless in the woods and doorways where they live, has found an innovative way to bring many inside. Through a Northampton nonprofit called Independent Housing Solutions, Dr. Jessica Bossie and a handful of other volunteers operate a home where people who live on limited incomes can stay, get whatever services they need and start the process of picking their lives back up again.

“Independent Housing Solutions supports 16 of the most complicated, chronically homeless individuals in the whole region,” says Bossie, 37, of Florence. “We wanted to hit home the ‘Housing First’ approach and have residents come off the street and not have to go through the various shelters.”

 Not an easy sell for those who live on the dark, uncertain edges of society.

The streets

If there were an AI version of what a longtime street person might look like, Isaac Brandes was it. “I hadn’t shaved in two or three years,” he said. “My hair had formed into dreadlocks and was all matted. You could say I looked the part.”

Brandes, 35, had been several years homeless, living mostly in a tent somewhere on the outskirts of this and other cities.

“It’s day-to-day bumming for money, one meal at a time,” he says of the life. “I lived through two winters outside — layers and layers of clothing.”

Brandes spent his childhood in Connecticut, Arizona and Maryland. After college, he found work as an audio engineer in Austin, Texas. “I was barely getting by, but really enjoying the nightlife,” he says. “I have a daughter, but my ex-girlfriend split and took off with the child.”

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From there, the comforts of home slipped rapidly away. He was living out of a van, which was soon towed because he got caught driving with a suspended license. His next dwelling was a tent.

With his wild-eyed Aqualung appearance and often surly demeanor, he was somebody you might take note of as he ambled your way. He’d often haunt the drive-up windows at fast-food joints, bending over to pick up change that customers had dropped. An employee once came out and told him to scat and threatened to kick his ass if he didn’t.

“So humiliating,” said Brandes. “The normal things you would never do, like shoplifting, you will when you’re homeless.”

He is well known to area police departments.

“I was drinking heavily and argumentative,” he says. “Never slept very well outside. Every night is a danger. Always afraid someone’s going to attack you, or a wild animal. I sleep more deeply now.”

Brandes now sleeps in a house, a renovated former office building at the end of a tree-lined street near the center of town. He has an address. And also a job, a thing unimaginable not one year ago.

Housing First

When Bossie founded Independent Housing Solutions in 2021, the idea was to develop the kind of housing that will click for those distrustful of the system. The in-at-night, out-in-the-morning regimen of cot shelters does not work long term with that population.

“Their chronic homelessness is not the problem,” said Bossie. “It’s a symptom, and it’s usually more than one, of mental illness, substance abuse or chronic disease.

“If someone has a relapse or a life crisis, they end up back outside and have to restart that whole process. Our program is a little different,” she says.

The unique tenet of Housing First, which gained traction some 20 years ago, under the aegis of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is to provide the unhoused with permanent subsidized housing, which serves as a platform for improving their quality of life. It does not mandate that the resident enter into treatment for behavioral health problems, nor does it require sobriety before moving in.

“As a doctor who supported all different types of housing initiatives, you could see what wasn’t working,” Bossie said. “OK, they got into housing but missed all that support that they would have gotten from the shelter system — the meals, the medical support staff on site, caseworkers, rules to follow.”

“Isaac came directly from outside as well and brought a lot of the outside with him,” Bossie said with a smile. “He saw and heard things that other people could not, frightening residents. After about three months we got him on the right medicine. He’s stable and having success.”

Brandes says adapting to indoor living after a long time out comes with the same culture shock as homelessness did in the first place. “We have the ability to acclimate to any situation,” he realized, “and it soon becomes the norm.”

He hadn’t looked for a job in a long time so he was unfamiliar with the modern day detachment of strictly online applications. After a countless number of these faceless attempts, Brandes went old school.

“I’m just gonna walk around downtown and see what looks good,” he decided, and stuck out his hand and asked the people at T. Roots for a job. He’s now employed full-time at the Taiwanese restaurant as host and waiter. “And the food is really good,” he says.

His siblings and parents have basically disowned him and he hasn’t seen them in years. But bow, he says, “my dad is coming up to visit.”

He’s also pursuing parental rights through Family Court.

5 Franklin St.

The first thing you notice is the wood floor, smooth and unvarnished, creating an unpretentious atmosphere. The large communal kitchen is well-stocked, due to partnerships with Manna Community Kitchen, the Northampton Survival Center and others. The single-occupancy bedrooms sit on the upper floors, offices in the basement, and the vibe is one of sacred privacy interspersed with social interaction.

Many of the residents are Bossie’s patients at the Hilltown Community Health Center — “my job job, the one that pays my bills,” she says with a smile. “Independent Solutions is my volunteer job.”

Bossie grew up in Oregon, attuned to the plight of street people at a young age. “I grew up with a person who struggled with those kinds of issues so I know where it starts,” she said.

She discovered the flagship model for addressing homelessness as a student at Boston University’s School of Medicine and never looked back. “I’m like what? Wait, this is a thing? I was blown away. I wish my family member had had this kind of support.”

“People say, ‘Why don’t they live in a nursing home?’ The answer is complicated but also not — the same reasons why you wouldn’t want to live in a nursing home,” with autonomy being the key.

Bossie hears from the building’s program manager Jacob Harrison that a woman who normally sleeps on the sidewalk spent four nights at the house that week. “That’s really good,” said Bossie. “She chooses to sleep outside but now she has a place to go if it’s cold or rainy, a place to bring her things.”

“The transition is tough for some people,” says Harrison, known to many in the camps around the city. “They become institutionalized in a sense; they’re used to a pattern.”

For some, that pattern includes smoking, which no one gets too worked up about here. Outside on the ramp, one resident, Cathy Mary Chagnon, lights a cigarette for herself and another, Bob Savard, a quadruple amputee.

“Now, there’s teamwork,” Dr. Bossie says with a laugh.

‘ Thank God forthe homeless’

“I’m better now, but I’ve had a rough couple of years,” said Savard, back in his room with “Ridiculousness” on the tube. Savard, 63, lost his legs and forearms to a rare vascular disease. “My capillaries were all f--ed up,” he said. “Started happening when I was in my mid-40s. The hand I was dealt.”

He grew up in West Springfield. “I quit high school cuz I wanted to work and make money. We Canadians are pretty good with wood and nails,” he says with a laugh. “I made a living with that for almost 30 years, played hockey four nights a week, had a pain in my foot one day, thought it was a blister — it was gangrene cuz my toe was dying! In the hospital four or five months … by the time they figured out what I had I had to have half my leg amputated, and it spread to my hands and my other leg.”

He’s not completely sure that the horror is over. “I’m hoping. I don’t want to lose any more of Bob,” he says with a grin.

But with all that, it was the shock of homelessness that nearly destroyed him. “Five years ago, homeless. I’d never been homeless. Frightening, particularly at night.”

“But I had a lot of people watching out for me,” he says. “Thank God for the homeless. They’d bring me to places to take a shower, they’d feed me, my own brothers and sisters. They’d help me get into a sleeping bag, get my stuff set.

“But Bossie knew I had to get off the street; I was having a really hard time.

“I came to this house the beginning of winter at like 80 pounds. I couldn’t even eat around other people, had me so upset all the time. I’m getting my weight back now,” he explains.

“I cried the first year, but y’know, I’m done with the crying. It wasn’t fun,” he says with a laugh.

Down the hall, Chagnon sits on her bed and tries to make sense of her life’s twists and turns.

“Homelessness can take it out of you,” she says. “I’ve thought terrible thoughts because I’ve been homeless.”

She’d been outside five or six years before coming here.

“I’ve made a lot of poor choices in my life,” said Chagnon, now in her late 60s. She says that she carries the Gaba 3 gene for alcoholism and tries very hard to avoid it. Runs in the family, she says.

The Hartford native and Holy Cross grad remembers the day her options dried up. “Devastating. I was sitting at my laptop and slammed it shut. What am I going to do?”

“I’ve lived on the streets, been in 17 homeless shelters, slept on the sidewalks of Northampton, a tent by the river, the railroad tracks, a lot of unfortunate places.

“Luckily, I had a mentally ill friend who protected me. We were sleeping on the church steps, no sexual activity, just a friendship. If anybody came up to me, he’d say, ‘Touch her and I’ll deck you!’

“I just found out that he’s got housing, which I’m grateful for,” said Chagnon.

Her fondest moment before life took a dark turn: stuck at college during the Blizzard of ’78. “Our teachers couldn’t get up the hill. My friends, my treasures, we just hung out with each other and laughed.”

She becomes emotional at times, fearing that she won’t live long enough to realize her dreams.

But for now, she’s adapting to living under a roof with other people.

“Doc Bossie opened this place for all of us,” Chagnon said. “Such a blessing.”

Waiting list

“Housing like this comes with a shoestring budget,” said Bossie. “We are constantly trying to get creative. Northampton is amazing — this is how we do this! But we’re new. People don’t know we’re here. We have ongoing repair needs. We’re looking for a nightstand. We always need dishes, silverware, towels, UNDERWEAR!”

Bossie’s parents live nearby, moving across the country from Portland to be nearer their daughter and their three young granddaughters. “My dad has helped build furniture for our tenants,” she said.

“We’ve got a lot of people waiting, on the street, in shelters. We want people who’ll participate. If they do, they’ll have a good chance of success.

“It’s not the first house,” she adds, “but the right house.”