Safi Fontes-Vicente grew up on the South Shore, the oldest of four siblings, and had dreams of playing professional soccer. He had a scholarship to play for UMass, he said.
But at 33, he’s spent much of his adult life dealing with substance use. He’s lived in the Mass. and Cass area, which became a massive center for people living with addiction and homelessness after Boston closed a treatment center in the Boston Harbor in 2014.
Despite massive efforts by the city earlier this year to remove tents and trash around Southampton Street and relocate almost 400 people there into transitional housing, there are still people living in shelters and on the street in the area.
One place they can go is a small community of aluminum-sided homes in a quiet corner of the Shattuck Hospital’s parking lot in Jamaica Plain. A few months ago, Fontes-Vicente came to the Cottages at Shattuck community. He spent the past five years at Mass. and Cass, a place he says he doesn't want to go back to.
“When you go down that road, you don't see one smile,” he said. “I will give you $100 if you walk down that road and you give me five people that are smiling, or five people that are giggling, or five people that have a set of clothes clean from head to toe. It's an unhappy place.”
But from the moment we saw Fontes-Vicente at Shattuck, he was smiling. He rushed from the communal showers to his cottage, where he had a crisp, clean outfit – a white T-shirt and khakis – to wear for photos.
Fontes-Vicente said the cottages have saved him from being on the street. He's honest about not being completely sober, but he says he's getting there. He has privacy, and freedom to come and go as he pleases, though there are no visitors allowed.
“It's neat,” he said. “It's like a little villa.”
A security guard sits at a red booth in front of a gate that opens to more than a dozen 65-square-foot white aluminum cottages. Most of the units house individuals, some house couples, and on each cottage the windows are partially covered.
The cabins are on a section of the Shattuck Hospital parking lot the size of about two basketball courts. They’re small, one-room aluminum shacks, each with windows and a door that locks. Some have colorful murals painted along their sides, with planters brimming with tomato plants, peppers, climbing vines, flowers, and herbs.
“We brought in the soil, but really this is the residents' project and they love it,” said Lauren Easton, vice president of Integrative Program Development and Clinical Innovation at Commonwealth Care Alliance. “It can be incredibly soothing for people to do gardening. We've seen lots of things grow. We haven't picked any tomatoes yet, but we're getting very close.”
There are shared bathrooms and a community room, where residents can eat together. Sometimes they’ll have a movie night.
Windows on the units are mostly covered, though residents are asked to allow enough space for staff to peek in and check on them during hourly rounds.
Some residents are still using opiates, said Susan Keyes, the regional director for Eliot Community Human Services, a local nonprofit that provides housing and street outreach.
“Substance use disorder is a medical condition,” Keyes said. “If somebody is a diabetic and eats too much candy, we don't tell them they can't have housing. If somebody has congestive heart failure and still smokes, we don't tell them that they can't have housing.”
At Shattuck, Keyes said, she will sometimes tell residents to just let her know if they are about to use drugs, so she can sit outside their cottage doors in case they overdose.
“Overdose from fentanyl happens in the first, like, seconds,” Keyes said. “I'm not looking to interrupt anything. Not looking to watch. I'm not looking for any reason other than to make sure that they don't overdose and die.”
For some, moving to the cottages can be a difficult adjustment. Coming to Shattuck means leaving communities they know, difficult and dangerous as those communities might be.
“Regardless of what you think of Mass. and Cass, that is a community where you are accepted, where you are known, and where you know what the rules are,” Keyes said.
Some people will leave the day they arrive at Shattuck. A nurse will go back to Mass. and Cass to see if she can find them and see if they want to return. The more they come back, Keyes said, the more likely they are to stay long-term.
“The more we get them back here, the more they get adjusted to being here,” Keyes said. “They do eventually build community here. And what we see over time is that they start going less and less and they start realizing that they have more and more to lose.”
Staff try and remember that people at Mass. and Cass often come from difficult life circumstances.
“You don't end up on Mass. and Cass because your life was all roses,” Keyes said. “You don't suddenly wake up in the morning and go, 'I'm going to shoot dope for the rest of my life, and that's going to be awesome.' These are folks who have really endured rough, rough life circumstances.”
For Fontes-Vicente, that rings true, especially when he thinks about those who are still at Mass. and Cass.
“Sometimes I take it as a reminder,” he said. “Wow, I really have a place to go back to, and sleep and eat and actually function.”
He says the area is improving little by little, but he thinks the city could do more to get people into housing placements like this one with a support system along the way.
“I love Susan to death, she's a very humble, very polite and very heartwarming lady,” he said. “I will not forget not one single person, not even the security guy that's in that booth, you know what I mean? Because I'm very grateful for him watching over me while I sleep.”
After residents like Fontes-Vicente leave Shattuck, the goal is to get them into permanent housing. So far, that's happened for more than 50 people. As of now, the transitional housing program will run through next June. Staff at the cottages hope that by then everyone at Mass. and Cass will have been served, though they wonder whether the city's efforts will keep up with that timeline.
Fontes-Vicente said he is largely happy at the cottages. He talks to his family often, and sometimes plays soccer with his 7-year-old son. Most of all, he's proud that he’s stayed.
“I usually leave places and I run from my problems, but I haven't, even though the door is wide open, I could leave anytime,” Fontes-Vicente said. “What's made me stay is my higher power. The way I feel, the way I look, the way I'm moving, the staff, the community. I know that this is going to be one great success story that I will be able to share around the world to help others.”