How to pay attention to those who live among us but who can be so easily marginalized? How to remember them after they're gone? On the evening of August 31 several images of the many who died as a result of the opioid crisis were projected on the exterior walls of the South End library. It was the day of National Overdose Awareness Day. The event was sponsored by The South End Forum; the Boston Public Health Commission's AHOPE group (which focuses on needle exchange and related programs); and the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless (BHCHP),
Public libraries, including the South End branch, are among the locales where the social impact of homelessness and addiction plays out on a daily basis. Deploying a full-time guard at the South End library has alleviated some of the acute problems but for many marginalized people, the public library remains the refuge of last resort. It is also where more fortunate library users interact with the homeless and those in need of addiction services in an often-uneasy social dance mediated to some extent by library staff.
According to Melanie Racine, of BHCHP, the display focused on black and white photographs of local people with the person's name, age and a quote from a family member that says a little about the relative who died as a result of overdose. "We hope to communicate the message that the men and women who have died from opioid overdose were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons, and each was a unique human being," wrote Racine in an email. "The event gives a literal face --in fact, many faces-- to this epidemic."
A similar attempt to humanize a marginalized population took place in California in 2012 when both the main libraries of San Jose and San Francisco organized a powerful photo exhibit of homeless and addicted men and women who used their facilities for shelter and services. Titled Acknowledged, images and text described how easy it was to become homeless, and how hard the struggle was to overcome. One subject, a man who grew up in a middle-class family in Indiana, and had a job and a college degree, caused a car crash where someone was killed. He fell into a depression, lost his job, became homeless. It took him many years to recover.