Before Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley and Governor-elect Charlie Baker served Christmas Eve lunch at the one of the region’s largest homeless shelters Wednesday, they prayed with scores of guests at the Pine Street Inn.
“Father of goodness,” O’Malley said, as Baker and Lieutenant Governor-elect Karyn Polito bowed their heads, “We beseech your blessing upon us today, and our loved ones. All of those who are here at Pine Street and all of those who are on the streets. We ask you to help us to always find room in the inn of hearts for our brothers and sisters.”
Then, engaging in a holiday tradition, O’Malley and Baker brought hot meals to some of the scores of homeless people sitting in a high-ceilinged room.
Sporting a baseball cap and food-service gloves, Baker served ham, cornbread, and veggies to Ronny Rodriguez, and chatted quietly with the 43-year-old who has been staying at Pine Street for about two years.
Rodriguez later told a reporter that “it’s [hard] for everybody” to be in a shelter over the holidays. “You’d rather be somewhere else,” he said.
The governor-elect snapped a selfie with Juan Clement, 48, a former Gloucester resident who has been living at the Pine Street Inn for more than three years. Clement, who plans to move into permanent housing next month, beamed after a quick chat with the state’s next chief executive.
Clement and Rodriguez were two of a growing number of people being served by the organization.
Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn, said the shelter had recently been quite a bit busier, after the closure of the bridge to Long Island displaced hundreds of homeless people who stayed in a city-run shelter there.
“Our numbers in the men’s shelter are up about 16 percent over last year and the women’s numbers are up 24 percent,” she said, adding the uptick has been a challenge.
Downie also said Pine Street is now producing about 3,500 meals a day, up from about 2,100 a day before the Long Island bridge was condemned.
The focus Wednesday was on serving people meals, but even on a holiday, politics is never far from top officials, and O’Malley and Baker spoke about Vatican and Beacon Hill issues, respectively.
When Baker takes office Jan. 8, he’s set to face a significant mid-year budget gap that some specialists peg at about $750 million. That could mean he and the Legislature will be forced to make significant cuts to the state’s more than $36 billion budget, which runs from July through June 2015.
Asked whether he would pledge not to make any cuts that will affect state aid to programs for the homeless in this year’s budget, Baker said, “The answer is basically yes.”
Echoing an issue he discussed during his successful gubernatorial campaign, Baker also pledged Wednesday to wind down the state practice of sending homeless families to hotels and motels when shelters are full.
Massachusetts is a right-to-shelter state, so when eligible homeless families apply for emergency housing, the state must provide it. Massachusetts contracts many shelter beds. When those are full, the state puts additional homeless families in hotels and motels.
On Tuesday night there were 1,580 families in hotel and motels paid for by the state, according to Matthew Sheaff, a spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.
“We’ll get that number down to zero before the end of our four years,” Baker said Wednesday.
During his campaign he rolled out a plan that included expanding rental assistance to help eligible families avoid homelessness or move out of emergency shelters.
Speaking to the news media as he walked into the facility, O’Malley was asked what he thought about Pope Francis’s recent sharp critique of arrogance and division in the Vatican in an address to top church officials.
“The Holy Father is like a Jesuit novice master; he wants of all of his priests and bishops to be the very best version of ourselves,” the cardinal said.
“An Advent message is a call for an examination of conscience and the Holy Father is very good at doing that,” O’Malley said with a chuckle.