Poet and memoirist, Nick Flynn started working in homeless shelters in his hometown of Boston back in 1984. “I was doing carpentry on these single-room occupancy apartments that were being converted into condos. Every night I would walk out and see masses of homeless people on the streets. These were the same people who were getting evicted from the places I was renovating. It left a bad taste in my mouth and so I started working part-time at a homeless shelter.” Part-time quickly became full-time as homelessness reached crisis proportions in Boston.
A few years later, Flynn’s father, a con-man, bank robber and aspiring poet who had been absent for much of his son’s childhood, was evicted from his lodgings and ended up in the very shelter where Nick worked.
Nick Flynn wrote about his homeless father in the PEN/Martha Albrand award-winning book, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which has recently been turned into the film Being Flynn, starring Robert De Niro. After years on the street, the elder Flynn ended up getting housed with an organization called Elders Living at Home. It was an early version of the strategy that would later be called Housing First “Housing First makes a lot of sense, says Nick Flynn, who has known HF founder Sam Tsemberis for years. “Even back in the mid-80s all of us working in the shelter system knew that shelters weren’t a solution. Shelters became dumping grounds for all these social ills and we were just a bunch of 20-year-olds trying to deal with the deluge. It was crazy. There were nights in the middle of winter when we would have to close our doors because we had run out of room. We knew people were going to die out there because we had shut them out. And they did. We were 20-year-olds deciding who lived and who died.”
But even though he supports the Housing First model, Flynn admits that there are discomfiting elements to the strategy. “The only reason the model worked for my dad was because there were no conditions. He just wanted a place where he could drink. And even after he was housed that’s what he did. He drank until his disability check ran out and then he would go to soup kitchens to eat. He hated being homeless and he worked hard not to be. But he wanted to drink more than he hated the street. If he had to choose drinking or housing, he would choose drinking, that’s why he spent so many years homeless. It seems crazy to pay for somebody’s apartment so they can drink in peace, but what else are you going to do with somebody like that? Before he was housed he spent a lot of time in jail and in the hospital and, of course, those are expensive services. So there’s no doubt in my mind that he cost the taxpayer a lot less money after he was housed than before.”
After 17 years with the Elders Living at Home program, Flynn’s father moved into a care facility where he currently lives. His son meanwhile, continues to be involved in advocating for the homeless. He travels around the U.S. screening Being Flynn for homelessness fundraising events. “Housing First may not be the best solution to homelessness,” Flynn says, “But it seems to be the best one we’ve got so far.”