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Many Homeless to Face Winter without Shelters

Despite increased efforts by volunteer organizations in Cambridge to alleviate homelessness, local social workers are concerned that not enough is being done to solve overcrowding problems at shelters.

A small new shelter that opened last night at the First Congregational Church, 11 Garden St., raises the number of emergency beds in Cambridge to 90, but this amount is still inadequate to house the average 200 homeless individuals who seek shelter in Cambridge each night, said James Stewart, a member of the Massachusetts Coalition for housing.

"At this point we can provide beds for twelve people," said Steve Gary, director of the new shelter. "In two or three weeks, though, once people hear about us, we'll be booked and we'll have to turn people away."

Social worker David Whitty said he expects about 40 homeless men and women to die in the Boston area this winter.

Dottie Lee, assistant director of the Cambridge and Somerville Program for Alcoholism Rehabilitation, said that although the winter had just begun, already some homeless individuals are being affected by the cold. "One of our regulars passed out because of the cold and didn't make it," she said.

Whitty, who directs Shelter Inc., an emergency overnight shelter that provides beds for 20 people, has to turn away people each night. He says community organizations like his own cannot accommodate all of Cambridge's homeless population, which is growing.

Stewart estimated that 7000 people are homeless in the Boston area, including the 200 he believes live in Cambridge.

Ed Cyr, director of the Cambridge Commission for Elders, said part of the reason Cambridge has so many homeless people is because the community is so active in trying to help them.

"If people know they can get food, the system will overflow," he said, adding that Cambridge's relatively generous services to the homeless attract the destitute who cannot find any help in neighboring towns. "The people in somerville say they don't have a homeless problem, but that's because they don't provide any services. All the homeless have come here," he said.

Cyr hopes to create shelters for the homeless that will teach them how to recognize their lives. "We need strong programs to get people back into the routine of being housed," he said.

"Also, at this point people have to walk to welfare which is six blocks away or to Social Security which is two bus rides. To have everything at one spot would be ideal, said Cyr, who is lobbying for a single "inter-agency" to serve all of homeless people's needs in a single building.

While many agency directors view such potential agency as valuable, they said that the problem is too big to be solved simply by efforts on the part of volunteers and that the city itself must contribute to alleviating homelessness.

Whitty believes that a city--funded daytime shelter would solve several sheltering difficulties. "A drop-in shelter would fill an unmet need," he said. "It would provide a broad range of emergency, feeding, and support programs."

Supporters of a city-funded shelter, however, feel the Cambridge City Council does not take the homeless problem seriously enough.