St. Francis House, a shelter in downtown Boston that provides refuge to hundreds of homeless people, used to open its doors each morning at 7. But after the city’s shelter on Long Island abruptly closed in October, the line of people waiting to get in stretched down the block, and the shelter decided to open a half-hour earlier.
In the late afternoon, the dining room tables are now pushed aside for 25 cots, part of a citywide effort to take in those displaced from the Long Island shelter as winter begins.
“The whole system is in chaos,” said Karen LaFrazia, executive director of St. Francis House, the largest day shelter in New England. “When you throw all the pieces up in the air, you aren’t really sure how they are going to fall.”
Already under strain during the busy holiday season, the city’s network of shelters is facing unusual pressure this year to make up for the loss of hundreds of beds on Long Island. The shelter was closed on Oct. 8 when the bridge that connects it to the mainland was condemned.
Susan LaPorte, 57, was living with her son in Dorchester for several years, until one day in July when she came home to an eviction notice on the front door. They were more than $5,000 behind in the rent.
She went to the Pine Street Inn, but soon found herself overwhelmed by the growing crowds.
“After the other shelter closed, it got worse,” she said. LaPorte said she battles depression and that the stress of being homeless has been overwhelming.
“Just not knowing where I’m going,” she said. “That’s the hardest part.”
At Pine Street, the number of women seeking shelter has risen 24 percent from last December, while the number of men has climbed 16 percent. With the shelter at capacity, as many as 100 people are spending nights in the lobby.
“There’s not a whole lot more room at the inn,” said Barbara Trevisan, director of communications for the Pine Street Inn. “We are concerned.”
After the Long Island shelter closed, the city opened an emergency shelter at a former fitness center in the South End, and a number of other shelters have added beds where they can. Next month, the city plans to open a building in the Newmarket area to house about 100 people.
“That should get us through the winter,” said Beth Grand, director of homeless services at the Boston Public Health Commission.
When the Southampton Street building is finished this spring, it will hold nearly 500 people.
In the meantime, the New England Center for Homeless Veterans has added 70 beds, the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program has added 45, and Boston Rescue Mission, an emergency shelter downtown, added 28 beds, according to the public health commission.
Many others have done the same.
That has allowed the city to replace the beds on Long Island, Grand said, and make sure no one is turned away from a shelter. But as the temperature drops, officials are bracing for increased demand.
Sue Marsh, executive director of Rosie’s Place, a community center for poor and homeless women, said they rarely have vacancies in their overnight program, and several hundred people come through its doors each day. “It’s been trending up,” she said. “And it’s only when they’ve exhausted every other option that they come to us.”
At St. Francis, the closure of the city’s largest shelter — combined with the typical rise in need around Christmas — has caused an “unprecedented increase,” LaFrazia said. Last month, St. Francis provided 36 percent more showers and more clothing requests than it did the previous November.
“There’s just overwhelming need,” she said. “The winter months are always harder, and this year people are looking for an anchor.”
On Christmas Eve, St. Francis drew a large crowd of people looking for a warm meal, dry clothes, and a place to be.
A woman named Eileen, 64, said she had been homeless since August, when her landlord sold his house and moved into the South Boston apartment she had rented for four years.
For a while, she stayed at her son’s in Winthrop. But their place was small, barely big enough for his wife and three young children, and she felt as if she was in the way.
“I couldn’t stay there anymore,” she said, shaking her head. She asked to remain anonymous so as not to embarrass her family.
Since then, she has mostly stayed at the Pine Street Inn, and saw firsthand the surge of people who were forced to look elsewhere after the bridge to Long Island closed.
“It’s been mobbed ever since,” she said.
Eileen said she misses her old apartment, especially now around Christmas. The past few months have been very hard, she said, tears welling in her eyes.
“I’m always alone,” she said.
She receives $800 a month in Social Security, and with the help of a Section 8 housing voucher can pay for an apartment if she can find one. She said she plans to visit the housing authority again this week to check the listings.
“I have to find a place,” she said.
LaPorte says her son would help her out if she asked. But he’s got enough problems.
“I don’t want to take from him,” she said. “I’m the mother. It should be the other way round.”