fb-pixel Skip to main content

During a socially distant Christmas, shelters work to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness

Two men, who identified themselves as Manuel and Nick, ate a Christmas meal, separated by plexiglass dividers, at the St. Francis House in Boston on Friday.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

On a normal Christmas Day, guests at St. Francis House on Boylston Street would gather tightly around decorated cafeteria tables and be served a Christmas feast restaurant-style by dozens of volunteers.

The tables would be decorated with flowers and tablecloths. Some people would hug one another warmly as they sat down to eat. And the volunteers would smile widely at the guests they served — unmasked, of course.

But Friday wasn’t a normal Christmas Day.

Like so many other traditions in 2020, St. Francis House’s Christmas Day luncheon needed some adjustments this year so it could be held safely during the pandemic. The day shelter was still prepared to welcome hundreds of guests on Friday, and they still served a warm Christmas meal.


The tables, however, were lined with plexiglass dividers and decorated with placemats at each individual seat. Only about 10 volunteers could attend this year — just a fifth of the number who volunteered at last year’s festivity — and only about 60 people could be served at once, down from the 85 people who could fit in the cafeteria before social distancing became a necessity. Plus, they had to get rid of the restaurant-style serving and have guests stand in line to get their food instead.

“It’s not like you can cancel Christmas,” said Karen LaFrazia, president and CEO of St. Francis House. “Even though it’s different, the things that really matter are the same. And I think that’s what I keep trying to hold onto.”

Twenty staff and 10 volunteers served lunch at the St. Francis House on Friday.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

It’s been different at the Pine Street Inn, too, said spokeswoman Barbara Trevisan. Quiet, even.

Almost 200 people have been moved from the shelter to a hotel that Pine Street is leasing to ensure that social distancing can be followed. Meals are done in shifts; only a couple of people can sit at each table, and there are no volunteers in the shelter.


“The volunteers really bring in a sense of the greater community, and that’s really been missing. It’s hard. You can see it,” she said. “You can just see, it’s really hard on people who already are socially isolated and don’t have choices about being in a home.”

Experiencing homelessness during the holiday season already brings its own set of emotional challenges.

The isolation. The loneliness. The need for human contact. With the pandemic layered on top, many people are facing a whole new set of challenges they never could have prepared for.

For one thing, people are facing a near-impossible choice: Should they spend time inside a shelter in a congregate setting, where the coronavirus is more prone to spread? Or should they stay outside, where they’re probably safer from the coronavirus, but facing the harsh elements of a New England winter?

Leaders at both the Pine Street Inn and St. Francis House have said they’ve seen more people this year choosing to stay on the street rather than go to a shelter due to concerns about the coronavirus.

“When you’re in a situation where you don’t have a lot of choices, it’s been really tough on people,” Trevisan said.

Many people also feel that their regular options have ceased to exist. Some people experiencing homelessness can normally visit family members on holidays, but they aren’t invited this year because of the pandemic, LaFrazia said. Others are dealing with the cold and rainy weather, struggling to find places to stay warm during the day while public seating at libraries and coffee shops remains limited.


“It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” LaFrazia said.

“In some ways we all get the big stuff that’s different, but I think it’s the smaller things, the accumulation of smaller things, that have really sort of hurt people that have so little already,” she added. “We’re all having a place to go home to at night, and that’s how you protect yourself from the virus. People who are experiencing homelessness know they don’t have that protection, and that’s stressful.”

Places like St. Francis House and the Pine Street Inn work to alleviate some of that stress, connecting guests with job training and recovery services and helping them find stable housing. LaFrazia and Trevisan both said their organizations have worked hard to ensure that those programs and others stay in place, even when the pandemic has forced so much else to change.

Both shelters also gave out Christmas gifts to all their guests, working to keep the normal magic of the holiday season alive to the best of their abilities.

At the Woods-Mullen Shelter and Southampton Street Shelter, the two emergency shelters operated by the Boston Public Health Commission, guests received a Christmas meal and a wrapped gift that included a hoodie, flip flops, razors, socks, and a selections of candies, according to a spokeswoman for the commission.

The staff members at Project Hope’s family shelter also worked hard to bring the Christmas spirit inside. The shelter hosted a downsized version of its regular holiday party this week and had a gift card drive for its families.


“We want to make sure that kids feel the joy and the fun and the thrill of the holiday season, despite all of the reasons that we have to just feel really low and down at this moment,” said Sue Marble Cuthbert, the organization’s director of development.

“With the hope before us with the vaccine and sort of a light at the end of the tunnel, we think of the holiday season, especially a day like today, as shining light,” she said. “We’re here as a community in this together.”