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Cambridge Homeless Shelters Fight to Stay Open Amid Coronavirus Crisis

The First Parish Church is located on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.
The First Parish Church is located on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. By Megan M. Ross
By Jasper G. Goodman, Crimson Staff Writer

Homeless shelters in Cambridge have begun to solicit donations and call for government intervention to support their guests as they struggle to confront the coronavirus crisis.

Harvard’s Phillip Brooks House Association, which operates two student-run shelters — the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y — launched a Homeless Shelter Emergency Fund to help cover unexpected costs due to the outbreak. Both shelters, which are normally operated by student volunteers, currently remain open despite uncertain futures.

“We’re all working really, really hard to see how we might be able to keep the space open for these populations because we know how critical it is,” PBHA Executive Director Maria J. Dominguez Gray said.

Dominguez Gray said the shelters have moved to operate “in a way that does not rely on our usual volunteer model.” In order to do so, HSHS and Y2Y have outsourced services including food and laundry.

She added that PBHA is considering having professional staff take over the day-to-day operations of its shelters, a move that would likely require ongoing fundraising.

Y2Y — which was founded in 2015 by Samuel G. Greenberg ’14 and Sarah A. Rosenkrantz ’14 — has sent out fundraising emails along with PBHA in a bid to keep its doors open. In a Thursday email, Greenberg, Rosenkrantz and Y2Y Executive Director Cameron Van Fossen wrote it would be “catastrophic for our guests and the health of the community” if Y2Y closed due to the outbreak.

“We’ve had great support from alumni and other people who have stepped up,” Dominguez Gray said.

The First Church, which sits on Garden Street in Cambridge, is also working to keep the doors to its 14-bed shelter open despite staff shortages. Jim Stewart, the church’s shelter director, said First Church has begun collaborating with other area providers to encourage state and city officials to provide extra space to house homeless people amid the pandemic.

“It doesn’t make any public health sense to ask people to be sleeping essentially cheek to jowl in the midst of a public health crisis like this,” Stewart said. “It’s incumbent upon the state and the city to find additional spaces so that people who are poor and homeless can practice social distancing and not have to risk contracting a potentially life-threatening disease simply because they’re poor and homeless.”

“The governor and other public officials hector the citizenry to practice social distancing and stay home and work from home. But they seem quite content to tell homeless folks to stay in jam-packed human warehouses that have more in common with field hospices in a war zone than a public health facility,” he said.

Stewart added that the shelter’s guests often live with underlying conditions that render them vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“Many people who live on the street have underlying conditions that make it critical for us to try to find a way for them to stay safe and healthy. Otherwise, we’re going to have a public health disaster that impacts primarily the poor and people who live on the margins of society. That shouldn’t be the case,” Stewart said. “We should always be able to have a public health response for everybody in the community, not just those who have credit cards in their wallet.”

Against the backdrop of sparse coronavirus testing in the United States, numerous celebrities and elected officials — including several members of Congress and the Brooklyn Nets’ entire roster — have managed to get swabbed at medical facilities even without showing symptoms. Stewart said he finds disparities in testing “demoralizing.”

“From jump, it seems like those who have plenty and are able to take care of themselves always get to the front of the line, and those who have virtually nothing and most to lose are left just to fend for themselves,” Stewart said.

At the city level, Cambridge spokesperson Jeremy Warnick wrote in an emailed statement that local officials are examining “a variety of creative strategies” to support homeless shelters and their guests.

“The City is in preliminary works to begin contracting with local restaurants to provide bag or boxed meals for lunch and for dinner to be delivered to the specified shelters and programs that have indicated a strong need for the meals,” Warnick wrote. “Additionally, the City is aggressively looking for alternative housing options for those who may have an illness or are not able to locate a bed in any open shelters, which currently includes the Warming Center in the City’s Senior Center.”

The office of Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 did not respond to a request for comment.

Kelly Turley, the associate director of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, said the Coalition is encouraging the state to “be creative in finding alternative spaces” for homeless residents while many shelters are at capacity. She pointed to empty university campuses and military facilities as possible housing options.

Turley added that the Coalition for the Homeless is also pushing for a statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures to protect precariously housed residents “who may be at risk of experiencing homelessness because of unexpected and dramatic decreases in income.”

Dominguez Gray emphasized the importance of keeping the student-run shelters open during the crisis.

“The homeless population is particularly vulnerable,” she said. “We know that both for the wellbeing of the guests in our shelter, but also from a public health perspective about having people in the community who are more susceptible to infection, there’s a need to have the most safe beds possible for the homeless population.”

CORRECTION: March 20, 2020

A previous version of the caption for this article incorrectly stated that the photo captured First Church on Garden Street. In fact, it captured First Parish Church on Massachusetts Avenue.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at jasper.goodman@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.​​​​

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