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Shelter’s Off Season

By Hana M. Kiros, Crimson Opinion Writer

John Chute has lost a lot of people. “I have blocked out in my mind the number of people that I have known that have died tragically. Needlessly,” he tells me. “Freezing in snowbanks. Getting hit by cars on the way to a shelter.” Chute, 41 years old, says putting a figure to it is impossible.

“Countless people. Countless.”

Chute has lived in the area his whole life. For around seven years of his time here, he was homeless.

In 2020, after years on the city’s waitlist, Chute secured permanent housing. But the flow of bad news about those less lucky — people he knows who still live on the street or in shelters — has continued. He stresses the mortal stakes of shelter access, which can be revoked if shelter rules are violated. Common infractions include consuming alcohol and drug use: About half of people experiencing homelessness struggle with substance abuse, and many shelters are dry. “A lot of times, you know, people get banned and you would never see them again. Then you find out they're dead.”

The main subject Chute and I discuss is another way people lose shelter access — one that’s much less sudden, but more sweeping. On April 15 (somehow, in less than two weeks), Harvard’s two student-run shelters will close for the season. The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y, a youth shelter, operate from November through mid-April and also run limited summer programs.

I didn’t consider what it meant for these dozens of beds to go offline until Jim Stewart, a Divinity School graduate and director of The First Church Shelter in Harvard Square, described the “scramble” that, like clockwork, strikes when “the end of the second semester comes up on the horizon.”

In preparation for their seasonal closure, both Y2Y and The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter work to develop an “exit plan” for each of their guests.

Henry N. Lear ’24, HSHS’s Co-Administrative Director, explains that HSHS’s resource advocacy team has been making referral calls to other shelters, knowing from experience that their voice on the other end means “a higher chance of someone receiving a shelter bed.”

Whatever favorability a student calling curries has limits. The First Church Shelter, like all in the region, is virtually always at capacity — stuffed as guests like Chute wait years to access public housing there is little political will to build.

“We get lots of calls from Y2Y and the Harvard Square shelter like: ‘Oh well, this is a great person. He’d fit really well there,’” Stewart tells me. “I’m like: ‘Probably would. But you know, we’re full!’”

Stewart describes the doomed exchange of people seeking shelter across the river — told to see if there are open beds in Boston or Cambridge, only to make the trek and find none. “Clearly there isn’t sufficient resources available to meet the needs out there.”

So I ask Lear: Where will the people staying at HSHS go in two weeks?

Lear is excited to share that three HSHS guests are moving into permanent housing soon — huge, though very much “the exception to the rule.” Others hope to stay with friends and family, though Lear reminds me that many experiencing homelessness have families “they don’t have a great relationship with — hence, homelessness.”

“These conversations, particularly at the end of season, really hold a particular emotional weight,” Lear says.

I asked John Chute about the student-run shelter closures, with language I’d picked up interviewing shelter-runners: How do we ease the transition from one shelter to other resources? He laughs a little — I make it sound like they’re “going from a job to a better job or something.” Fair. I try to drop the euphemisms.

Chute helps me understand the difficulties you face when leaving a shelter, though he’s never been around to experience HSHS or Y2Y’s closures personally. During his seven years of homelessness, he only stayed about five nights in the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, which lotteries its beds.

Chute recalls losing the lottery so relentlessly, he decided to ask the student who ran it if he had done something wrong and was shadowbanned from the shelter. “Can you tell me if I am, just so I don’t have to keep coming here?” But bad luck — years of it — was all that was behind it.

When people transition between shelters, Chute says “IDs get lost, stolen, and paperwork is thrown away.” The disruption can cause hiccups in the years-long process of applying for benefits like disability and permanent housing. “Case workers move and they don’t set you up with a new one properly. Stuff like that happens all the time,” Chute says. Though Harvard’s student-run shelters catalog information so that another case worker can, ideally, pick up where they left off, every guest will lose access to the student case workers they have been working with this season.

Even receiving mail — a prerequisite for setting up a bank account, accessing government services, and employment — grows incredibly complicated.

The closure of Harvard’s shelters in mid-April, and their subsequent resumption of regular operations in November, is an obvious byproduct of their marriage to student schedules. Yet Stewart, who has witnessed HSHS’s end-of-season for the past 40 years, thinks an obvious solution exists: hiring full-time staff to assist students in running these shelters so they can remain open for more of — and ideally all of — the year.

Stewart praises student involvement in Harvard’s shelters, but envisions the day when their work is augmented by full-time staff solely dedicated to keeping the shelters running. Currently, no such staff exists. He pokes at this model: “Do these shelters exist to serve the people looking for shelter, or are they set up to provide an opportunity for people to be of service?”

As a freshman, Lear admits he approached shelter work as a “very much self-serving thing.”

“I did it because I wanted to feel good.”

Now, the work feels very different. During his time at HSHS, “I have been yelled at. I have come off shift, like sobbing. I have dealt with people in the throes of drug overdose.”

Three years in, his biggest focus is doing what he can “for the people that I am obliged to serve.” But, he says, “we’re pinned in by these bigger things.”

Through a process known as procurement, the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter is newly able to apply for funding from the state and City of Cambridge to expand its services. Lear is open to the idea of using this process to hire full-time staff and potentially serve guests longer. “What I’m really hoping for is a model where we can have some mix of professional support,” he tells me. “I am an adamant supporter of whatever steps that we can take to ensure good outcomes for our guests.”

Harvard’s student-run shelters are of a rare breed invented here. That their entirely volunteer-based, student-led model works at all is a testament to the goodwill and dedication of students. In an environment inundated with flashier options, they work late night and early morning shifts and choose work genuinely capable of transforming lives.

Yet the April 15 cliff we are approaching highlights one way this model bends towards student interests, and inevitably destabilizes the lives of those it is designed to serve.

Chute treats the idea of hiring professionals to help run the shelter as a no-brainer. Running a shelter, “is not a joke,” and neither is recovering in one. “God bless anyone that can get out of addiction while being homeless.”

To some extent, Chute says dealing with the issue of a couple dozen beds feels silly. “It’s so asinine, because you can just eliminate the problem,” he says. “Lack of housing? Build housing!”

But, until access to supportive, permanent public housing is less mythical, Chute says Harvard’s student-run shelters should “hire people year-round, definitely.” For someone seeking shelter in our under-resourced Cambridge, “it’s a life or death situation.”

Hana M. Kiros ’22, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is an Integrative Biology Concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Harvard Everywhere,” runs on alternating Mondays.

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