Square Shelter Celebrates 25th Birthday

When James Shearer arrived at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, he was without a job and living on the streets. But while living at the shelter, Shearer cofounded Spare Change News—one of the nation’s first street newspapers dedicated to benefit the homeless—and now 16 years later, he is president of the Homeless Empowerment Project.

Harvard Square Homeless Shelter—the country’s only entirely student-run shelter—provided a home to Shearer like it has done for countless others for the past 25 years.

Shearer spoke about his life-changing experience at the shelter at its 25th anniversary commemoration last night at the Institute of Politics.

A panel of local activists, including Massachusetts State Representative Alice K. Wolf and former representative Jarrett T. Barrios ’90-’91, praised the services that the shelter has provided to the community and debated solutions to homelessness at a national level.

Barrios was a volunteer at the shelter—then known as “UniLu” for its location in the basement of the University Lutheran Church—beginning his freshman year at Harvard. He said that late nights collecting food donations from local restaurants and buying pizza from Pinnochio’s for the shelter’s guests inspired his career in public service.

“I knew the name of every [homeless] person in the Square,” said Barrios. “Those names and those stories are part of our community.”

The shelter is currently open from November to April each year and is manned by over 150 volunteers. It sleeps 24 each night and provides breakfast and dinner for many more in the homeless community.

In addition to being the only shelter in the country exclusively staffed by undergraduate volunteers, it is one of the most inexpensively-run shelters in Massachusetts, according to the shelter’s directors.

Philip F. Mangano, a Boston native who directs the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in Washington D.C., said that the shelter was notable for providing more than just “a blanket and a bowl of soup.” He said that it also implements programs that help people at the shelter get access to health services, jobs, and permanent housing.

In addition to the volunteers—both undergraduate and Cantabrigian—who organize the shelter’s day-to-day operation, the student directors have also developed a team of “resource advocates.” These students are trained by professional lawyers and social workers and help guests with the technical details of applying for jobs and housing.

Shelter director Chiara Condi ’08 said that the resource advocates provide longer-term, more personal help than that provided by over-burdened state services.

“We fill the gaps between people and social services with more human relationships,” said Condi.

Despite these efforts, homelessness remains a major problem, according to shelter directors, who said that roughly 6,000 people are currently homeless in Boston.

To expand their services, the shelter is trying to arrange an endowment to be managed by the Harvard Management Company, according to one of the shelter’s directors, Eleanor R. Wilking ’09. The shelter currently receives the majority of its funding from the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

Many at last night’s events praised the shelter’s ability to bridge the gap between Harvard and the surrounding community.

“The relationship between Harvard and the community has its problems, and at the shelter, students and community members can interact and contribute together,” said Wolf.

Volunteers said they value the relationships that they develop with the shelter’s guests.

Shu Yang ’10 said that the shelter has been the highlight of his time at Harvard.

“It is a learning experience. You gain an appreciation of the pressing social issues in the world,” said Shu. “And, it’s a great time.”

—Staff writer Cora K. Currier can be reached at ccurrier@fas.harvard.edu.