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Beds Beckon at Square Shelter

The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter wasn’t fully occupied Saturday night, but it was still bustling.

At around 7 p.m., when the shelter doors opened for guests for the first time this year, dinner shift volunteers were busy heating up food donated from the Adams and Quincy House dining halls and from local restaurants, while volunteers stationed by the sink washed a constant stream of dishes.

Though the shelter, located in the basement of the University Lutheran church, was unusually quiet, shelter director Daniela H. Tartakoff ’04 said she does not expect that the situation will last.

“It’s usually full. We’re usually turning people away. By the end of the week, it will be full,” she said, suggesting that potential guests may not have known about the shelter’s opening.

Once they’ve served the food, the volunteers mingle with the shelter guests.

For returning staff members, many of the guests are familiar.

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“Tonight, I recognize everybody but three people,” said Tartakoff.

The University Lutheran shelter is the only student-run homeless shelter in the country, staffed by 14 directors, 14 supervisors and 150 volunteers, according to Michael T. Whealy ’05, a shelter director.

Volunteers are divided into dinner, evening, overnight and breakfast shifts.

Many mention their interactions with guests as the best part about working at the shelter.

“Interacting with people at the shelter is great,” said Christina T. Winans ’05. “The guests have very diverse backgrounds and interests, and I think that getting to know them will broaden my perspective.”

The shelter has room for five women and 20 men per night, and guests must call in the morning to reserve a bed for that night.

The shelter also has 14-night beds available and runs a work-study program, through which four or five guests who work between 30 and 40 hours per week can stay at the shelter indefinitely. Most shelter guests are employed, but they cannot afford housing in the area, said Whealy.

The orderly living conditions and quiet atmosphere at the shelter are draws for guests.

Guests must be in the shelter by 11 p.m., may not smoke inside the shelter and must obey lights-out requirements.

Along with only about a quarter of the shelters in the area, the University Lutheran shelter is “dry,” meaning that guests who are under the influence of alcohol are not allowed to stay there. The dry policy helps to create a calm atmosphere at the shelter, Tartakoff said.

“One reason we’re extremely strict with our dry policy is that we are aware of the severe effect exposure to alcohol or drugs can have on recovering alcoholics or addicts,” she said.

At 9:30 p.m., the shelter directors start accepting calls for e-beds, or one-night emergency beds, which are available when there are unreserved beds at the shelter for the night.

Saturday night several women called in for e-beds—a rarity, according to Tartakoff.

“We get few requests from women, which is frustrating,” said Tartakoff, who said that in terms of gender, the demographics of the shelter often do not reflect the makeup of the homeless population at large.

One of Tartakoff’s roles as a director, she said, is to work as an advocate for the shelter’s guests who are employed at least 35 hours a week and want permanent housing.

Helping some of these guests get out of homelessness is particularly rewarding, Tartakoff said.

For the other shelter volunteers, their day-to-day interactions with guests are fulfilling as well.

“It’s nice to be able to serve other people. I think that’s something that can get left out of the life of a college student,” Winans said. “Sometimes we get so caught up in our own agendas that we forget to look outside ourselves.”

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