Homeless Over-Crowd Cambridge Shelters

Cambridge's three subway stops have always made the city a haven for many of the Boston, areas homeless, but according to some working to combat the problem, the past two weeks' below-zero temperatures and bitter wind have exacerbated their plight.

"The extreme cold has caused a great deal of difficulty for the homeless, especially during the day. They can't stay here but they really have no where else to go," says Fred Reese who runs a shelter out of the basement of University Lutheran Church, located near Kirkland House.

According to Isabella Isabella Hines of the Cambridge Department of Human Services, roughly 15 people a day were being turned away from Cambridge shelters in January-and that number has increased by at least 10 percent since the onset of the February cold.

But Hines said it was a mistake to assume there was only a problem for the homeless when temperatures dropped. "When you're homeless under any conditions you need a place to stay. Once the temperatures drop below freezing it really doesn't matter how far below they go," she says.

Hines' office recently compiled statistics on the city's homeless and their condition during January. Their statistics put Cambridge's homeless count at more than 100 persons the majority men. Each night in January, the city's three shelters were filled to capacity, and each night latecomers were referred to other locations such as the Pine St. Inn in Boston.


"We've been turning away oceans of men," says Mary Kelly, who has worked with private service agencies in Cambridge for many years. "Whether the ones we turn away get a place I don't know. It's a sad thing," adds Kelly, assistant director of Shelter, Inc, a 20 bed shelted located on School St.

Cambridge's housing situation makes the problem even more acute. A service shortage of low-income housing leading to a vacancy rate of less than one percent makes affordable housing nearly impossible for those who cannot pay high rents or sizable initial deposits, says Hines.

In addition to the Winthrop St. and School St. sites, the Emergency Service Center, located near Central Square provides nighttime accommodations for men. The center caters to the needs of between 50 and 70 alcoholics a night. Both Shelter, Inc. and the Lutheran Church, besides providing a place to sleep, serve breakfast and dinner.

Due to the demand for beds, the shelters only accept references from churches or organizations such as the Salvation Army. Each applicant must prove he is without a source of income, without family or friends, and has a social security number, shelter workers said.

Approximately 30 percent of people seeking shelter are suffering from some form of mental retardation-from slight learning disabilities to severe emotional difficulties, according to Hines. This is partially a result of the deinstitutionalization that occurred during the 1960's, when many marginally mentally ill patients were released from mental institutions.

Instead of being placed in halfway houses or other supervised on environments, they were turned free though lacking the ability to cope with everyday situation. "A very large proportion of the homeless have either emotional or alcohol related problems that make it impossible for them lives their lives," says Hines.