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By Jacqueline Lisk
This article is a part of Studio/B’s 2020 Everyday Heroes section, honoring those who made life a little better and brighter for others this year. To all the everyday heroes out there, we thank you.
“I can honestly say I have not stayed home for one day during COVID, besides Thanksgiving. It has been pretty wild,” says Mary Ann Ponti, director of outreach programs at St. Anthony Shrine in Downtown Crossing.
Ponti’s outreach programs include the Shrine’s Homeless Women’s Clinic (in partnership with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program), Homeless Street Outreach, Franciscan Food Center, Lazarus Ministry, Veterans Ministry, Kids Program, and Seniors Ministry—but she has spent the bulk of her time during the pandemic helping Boston’s homeless.
“The shelters have lowered their capacity because of COVID, so there are less people in the shelters and more people outside,” she explains. “Prior to COVID, my goal would be to get somebody inside, to a day or night shelter, and to get them connected to services. Now I will still encourage people to use the shelter system, but I’m also accepting of the fact that they don’t want to go inside.”
Part of her work now is to keep people on the streets safe, fed, and alive. Sometimes she makes the rounds alone, distributing masks and hand sanitizer in areas with high homeless populations, like the Commons, Chinatown, Downtown Crossing, and South Station. Often, she travels with a nurse practitioner from the Shrine’s homeless women’s medical clinic or a partner from the Department of Mental Health.
The complicated consequences of COVID-19
Transmission of COVID-19 on the streets has been low, but the pandemic has been “really rough on a lot of people,” Ponti says.
The summer was particularly bad. People needed water and reprieve from the heat, and violence was on the rise. Ponti came across three people with stab wounds. Each time, she took a picture and texted it to one of the clinic doctors for advice on what to do.
She also encountered more women who had been beaten or sexually assaulted than she had before the pandemic. “One of our female clients got beat up pretty badly. She went to the hospital and ended up with staples in her head. I remember taking the staples out sitting on the church steps because she didn’t want to go inside a clinic or the hospital.”
To help women in need, St. Anthony Shrine is working on a $1.2 million renovation to its Women’s Clinic and hopes to reopen within the next couple of months. Then one of Ponti’s goals will be to bring women there for support and solace.
“My big street family”
In June, Ponti got an outreach phone. She gives the number to anyone who needs it, and she gets multiple calls and texts a day. Just before Thanksgiving, she got a call from a woman in a recovery program.
“She went into the program with just the clothing on her back and asked me to bring her some clothing, underwear, and a couple of snacks. So, I dropped those off to her so she would have clothes for Thanksgiving, and some snacks just to give her a little cheer.”
You don’t need a phone to get in touch with Mary Ann. “I’m out and about in the neighborhood quite a bit, so I tell people the next time I’m going to be on the street. It’s sort of my big street family. We all kind of know each other. Someone will say, ‘Oh, so-and-so is looking for you, Mary Ann.’ It’s a pretty big network on the street.”
Ponti loves her “big street family.” She also loves her job—which couldn’t be more different than her previous career on Wall Street, where she worked until the 2008 financial crisis.
But there are tough times, too—and heartache. This fall, a young man with schizophrenia living in the Commons wandered into the Downtown Crossing T station, hit the third rail, and died. He was new to the Commons and didn’t have an ID—a common problem for people on the streets. He answered to Maurice, and Ponti had been doing her best to care for him until his brother, who lived in Texas, could retrieve him.
His loss was painful for Ponti. “I live in Downtown Crossing, so to think that my Maurice died a few hundred feet below where I live—it crushed me. It really did,” she says.
The Franciscan Friars at St. Anthony Shrine helped Ponti grieve. They reminded her that in Maurice’s last days, he was taken care of.
Boston streets are filled with stories like Maurice’s, but also—stories of hope and resilience, and people, like Ponti and her colleagues at the Shrine, who have devoted their lives to helping those in need.
Ponti praises Boston-area resources for their collaborative approach, and the Shrine for its wide-range of services. For example, The Shrine’s Franciscan Food Center has provided people with nutritious food every week of the pandemic. Before Thanksgiving, the pantry distributed 300 turkeys to a long line of folks who waited in the pouring rain.
“Even though the front doors of the Shrine are closed, we really are still open,” she explains. “The friars are still running a lot of our programs, including our Counseling Service, Bereavement Group, and our Spiritual Direction Training program.”
And the Shrine’s street outreach never wavers. Despite a pandemic that brought the world to its knees, Mary Ann Ponti never missed a day of work.