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Winter Puts Strain on Resources, Housing for Cambridge Unhoused Residents

Low winter temperatures next month could pose a hazard for unhoused Cambridge residents and put a strain on local shelters.
Low winter temperatures next month could pose a hazard for unhoused Cambridge residents and put a strain on local shelters. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Laurel M. Shugart and Olivia W. Zheng, Crimson Staff Writers

As low February temperatures pose a hazard for unhoused Cambridge residents, shelters and service organizations are having to meet a growing demand for beds and winter resources.

Y2Y Harvard Square, a student-run overnight shelter for youths, has seen an increase in people entering its lottery since the beginning of December, according to Anais D. Colin ’25, a Y2Y director.

As a result, Colin said, Y2Y has added three additional emergency beds for the season. Still, because Y2Y often reaches capacity, Colin said she has had to refer unhoused residents to the Cambridge Winter Warming Center.

“It has been pretty difficult,” Colin said. “There often is just one spot left, right around 11 p.m., if there are any spots left at all.”

Cassie Hurd, the executive director of the nonprofit Material Aid and Advocacy Program, which provides legal and housing aid and supplies to unhoused people, said the winter has strained their ability to provide material resources.

“As this winter has been especially wet it’s been a challenge to keep up with the need for coats and sleeping bags, which can act as sponges and frequently need to be replaced, and good quality waterproof boots that are crucial to prevent trench foot,” Hurd wrote in a Tuesday email. “And of course, tents which are so crucial for people’s survival.”

Still, Hurd wrote, some unhoused people are choosing to remain outdoors during the winter due to seasonal overcrowding, lack of space, and a “warehouse-like environment.”

“So although it may seem counterintuitive to stay out in the cold New England weather, community members who are surviving outside are making the best choices considering the extremely limited options and conditions they are surviving,” she added.

Jim Stewart, the director of First Church Shelter, agreed that overcrowded shelters can be harmful for some unhoused individuals, saying that those who “have profound mental health issues or significant trauma just have a hard time feeling safe and comfortable in a space where they're surrounded by people they don't know and trust.”

Cambridge spokesperson Jeremy C. Warnick wrote in a statement that the city has supported the maintenance and expansion of both family and individual shelters using city funds and is working to increase permanent supportive housing.

But shelters statewide are nearing capacity, and the state government is struggling to find permanent housing options for 450 families on a waitlist for emergency housing assistance. Unhoused individuals, who unlike families have no right to shelter, can be left even more vulnerable.

Stewart said the lack of affordable housing for unhoused residents was an “embarrassment” for “one of the richest communities in Massachusetts.”

“We still have this embarrassment of inadequate housing for poor and working people,” Stewart said. “It should be a scandal to everyone, not just some people who work in a shelter or a couple of city councilors. We all should be scandalized by this.”

—Staff writer Laurel M. Shugart can be reached at Follow them on X @laurelmshugart or on Threads @laurel.shugart.

—Staff writer Olivia W. Zheng can be reached at Follow her on X @oliviawzg.

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