Rough Sleepers

Tracy Kidder

Nonfiction 2023 | 320 pages


I enjoy Tracy Kidder and his way of presenting reality.  I read House and Soul of a New Machine prior to Rough Sleepers. I expected Rough Sleepers to be about the state of homelessness in general, but instead, Kidder takes us on in-depth tour of homelessness in Boston, following the story of Dr. Jim O’Connell, a man who conceived of and made real actions to create a community of care for a city’s unhoused population, including those who sleep on the streets — the “rough sleepers.” Kidder spends five years following Dr. Jim and his dedicated colleagues as they serve thousands of homeless patients, both at Mass General Hospital and in a van the travels every Thursday night to find homeless people on the streets of Boston who need medical attention.

We also follow Tony Columbo, one of the homeless clients/patients of Dr. Jim, and the roller-coaster ride of homelessness.  We see the system through his eyes; someone who has spent three (or more?) decades on the streets.

I learned a great deal about homelessness from reading this non-fiction, which reads like a novel.  It is easy to absorb the story he tells, though it is often sad, and you may pull your hair out as your read about the challenges of the homeless seeking shelter beds, finding vouchers for studio apartments, staying safe and warm, and addressing the many medical issues that plague the “rough sleepers,” caused by drugs and alcohol addiction, mental illness, physical challenges, and the cold and violence of living on the streets.

I really appreciated this quote from page 349 in the Large Print edition, “At a gala to raise money, in 2018, Jim tells the audience, ‘I like to think of this problem of homelessness as a prism held up to society, and what we see refracted are the weaknesses in our health care system, our public health system, our housing system, but especially in our welfare system, our educational system, and our legal system --- and our corrections system.  If we are going to fix this problem, we have to address the weaknesses of all those sectors.’"

This bleak assessment helps us to see why solutions are so complex and elusive. Rough Sleepers helped me to understand why our myriad of quick-fix solutions don’t work.

I heartily recommend this book.  It will shed a humane light on the challenges of homelessness for you, without being overly solicitous or sappy.

August 2023