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Cambridge Homeless Shelters Hold Steady Amid Omicron Rise

Homeless shelters in Cambridge have been trying to provide services for those in need while also attempting to minimize transmission of Covid-19.
Homeless shelters in Cambridge have been trying to provide services for those in need while also attempting to minimize transmission of Covid-19. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Julia J. Hynek and Kaleigh M. Kuddar, Crimson Staff Writers

Almost two years after the pandemic’s start, Cambridge homeless shelters have held steady operations amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

Local shelters, including Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y Harvard Square, have successfully implemented Covid-19 protocols in accordance with public health guidelines, limiting transmission among staff and guests through the spike in Omicron cases this winter.

Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y Harvard Square practice social distancing, mask-wearing, and regular disinfection, which are measures the institutions have maintained since the early days of the pandemic. Both shelters are staffed by student volunteers through the Phillips Brooks House Association.

Jim Stewart, the director of First Church Shelter — a Cambridge shelter that serves men experiencing homelessness — said handwashing, masking, and rapid testing have largely limited infections.

“We’ve tried to be consistent all the way through, we went, at the beginning of the pandemic, 10 months without any infections,” Stewart said.

At HSHS, volunteers are required to be vaccinated against Covid-19, according to HSHS administrative director Henry N. Lear ’23-’24.

“We ask everyone to be masked at all times. All our volunteers need to be vaccinated,” Lear, a Crimson magazine editor, said. “We don’t require our guests to be vaccinated. Certainly, we encourage it and do what we can to connect people to vaccine resources, but it’s not actually a requirement to stay with us.”

Due to their close contact with potentially unvaccinated individuals, volunteers may be more likely to be exposed to Covid-19. But Matias Ramos, director of programs at PBHA, said that volunteers are aware of the risks in their role.

“Students that really dive into the human services work of certain PBHA programs are trained to understand some of the risks that come with it,” Romas said.

The wide availability of vaccines in Cambridge has also contributed to keeping the number of cases under control in shelters.

Stewart cited vaccine clinics run by the city out of First Church and other local centers, arguing that “[Cambridge has] done everything possible to make it easy for poor and homeless people to get access to vaccination.”

He added that all current guests at First Church Shelter are fully vaccinated and have received boosters, noting the shelter has only had one verified infection during the rise of the Omicron variant.

The City has also begun distributing rapid tests. Stewart said the shelter has 500 on hand in case any staff or shelter guests feel unwell and would like to test.

But Covid-19 restrictions still pose a challenge to certain shelter services.

Social distancing, for example, leads shelters to limit the number of beds the shelter can offer. Particularly with the recent nor’easter, shelters find themselves struggling to provide space to everyone that needs it to stay warm.

“There just weren’t enough places for people to go to get out of the weather,” Stewart said. “Shelter providers have tried to do the best they can to provide safe space, but it doesn’t make much sense to pack people in and then increase or amplify people’s risk of getting infected.”

Lear also spoke on this issue, describing the dilemma between housing as many as possible while preventing Covid-19 spread.

“It’s a balance we’re trying to maintain, of keeping people safe from the cold, and also making sure that people are kept safe from the virus,” Lear said.

—Staff writer Julia J. Hynek can be reached at

—Staff writer Kaleigh M. Kuddar can be reached at

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