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Boston’s Pine Street Inn is in the Hollywood spotlight these days thanks to a new Robert De Niro movie, “Being Flynn,” about a young man who, while working at the homeless shelter, discovers that his estranged father is a resident there.
But another Boston organization plays a lesser-known role in that true story. It’s a Boston Medical Center program that for 25 years has been helping find permanent housing for homeless senior citizens. WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke about the movie with Eileen O’Brien, the director of the Elders Living At Home Program.
Sacha Pfeiffer: In this movie, De Niro plays Jonathan Flynn, an older man who becomes homeless and ends up at the Pine Street Inn. Tell us how, in real life, your program helped Jonathan Flynn eventually leave the shelter.
Eileen O'Brien: We worked in partnership with another agency to secure him subsidized permanent housing in the Fenway, where he managed to stay for 17 years until he suffered a stroke and needed to move on to a more supportive environment.
This raises an interesting piece of your program, because oftentimes people can be in permanent housing and stable for a long time and then there’s a turn of events that causes a reversal of fortune.
It can be anything from the death of a spouse or another family member to a change in health status. I think that’s one of the things that happens most frequently: people suffer some kind of new illness and, as a result, are no longer as able to manage as they once were.
What are the some of the challenges you face specific to your clients being elderly, versus anyone who might be at risk of becoming homeless?
Their vulnerability is particularly poignant, as well as the health concerns they face. Most of them have been poor, sort of on the margins of society, for most of their lives, and one of the results of that is that they often face chronic health conditions, which in older age can become very crippling.
Do you know how many elderly homeless people we have in Boston?
We’re about to do a statewide survey to count the number. I think in Boston it’s probably around 1,200. That’s what the estimate is.
Besides finding housing for people, your group does what it calls “stabilization” for people in housing.
Correct. The idea is to have them as healthy and as thriving as possible because if they’re healthy then they’re more likely to remain housed and if they have good social supports they’re more likely to remain housed. We do everything from helping people to re-learn how to pay their bills to grocery shop to manage their money to – you know, sometimes it’s as simple as interacting with neighbors for people who’ve been homeless.
You’ve said in the past that some of your clients have poor medical literacy. What do you mean by that?
We actually have a current client who was diagnosed with cancer and when she suddenly stopped her radiation treatments we learned that she didn’t really understand what cancer is. Sometimes even the most basic things that we take for granted, like understanding that cancer is a fatal illness, our clients have a hard time grasping.
This Elders Living At Home Program started in 1986 specifically because of changes happening in Boston’s South End. For people who haven’t lived in Boston long enough to not always have known the South End as a trendy place with fancy restaurants and expensive brownstones, tell us what was happening in the city in the 1980s that made this program seem necessary.
Prior to the mid-1980s, there were hundreds and hundreds – thousands – of SROs, single-room occupancy houses. Boarding houses, basically, where people could stay for $25 a week and manage just fine. And through the gentrification process in the 1980s, those boarding houses disappeared and were renovated into condos and sold at exorbitant fees and a lot of folks ended up on streets or in shelters as a result of that.
What has changed most between now and then in the work you do?
The scarcity of affordable housing is probably the biggest thing. Back when we started we could get someone into housing within, sometimes, three to six months – and that was a long period of time. Now, even if you’re on a fast-track through an agency, it usually will take 12 to 18 months to get approved for subsidized housing.
Flynn, the person that De Niro plays in this movie, he’s now about how old?
And I understand you’re his health care proxy?
Yes, I am. His son lives in New York and the nursing home wanted someone who was close by to be available to sign documents and Jonathan decided I was a good-enough candidate, so I’m it.
Jonathan is now in a nursing home in Massachusetts?
Yes, in Boston. And he’s doing quite well.
So his health is reasonably stable?
His health is very stable. It’s amazing for an 82-year-old, given the life that he’s lived, how healthy he is.
What are his thoughts about De Niro playing him in the movie?
He was not exactly happy with the choice. He wanted Dustin Hoffman. If you ask him, he’ll tell you, “Dustin Hoffman is the only person who should be playing me.”
This program aired on March 7, 2012.
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