Old South Church in Copley Square, with support from a coalition of interfaith leaders and congregations from across Greater Boston, plans to open two of its rooms on Monday as a temporary daytime warming center for the homeless.
Clergy spearheading the “Boston Warm” effort say the need for the shelter underscores the shortcomings of the city’s response to the hundreds of homeless people displaced last fall. A structurally unsound bridge to Long Island was closed abruptly, cutting off access to the city’s main emergency shelter and recovery houses.
“The city has put some makeshift solutions in place; our feeling is many of them are absolutely inadequate,” said the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister of Old South. “The city has been focused on long-term solutions. We’ve been advocating on behalf of today, tonight, this weekend.”
A second Boston Warm temporary day center is scheduled to open on Mondays and Fridays, beginning Jan. 26, at Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street. Other churches are discussing the possibility of opening their doors, if necessary. The shelters will be open until April.
Felix G. Arroyo, the city’s chief of health and human services, said he was “very sympathetic” about the conditions homeless people are facing because of the bridge closure, and that the city is “entirely focused” on building a new shelter as quickly as possible.
Last week, the city opened the first 100 beds of a new shelter it is developing on Southampton Street, in the Newmarket neighborhood between Massachusetts Avenue and Interstate 93. After extended delays in siting the shelter, a large construction team is working to finish the project on an accelerated schedule.
“Given the circumstances, understanding we were in crisis mode, it’s turning out very well,” Arroyo said. “The Southampton Street facility . . . will be the best homeless shelter in the city, better than what we had before on Long Island.”
But the remaining 390 beds will not be available until April. In the meantime, homeless people have been forced to live in uncomfortable temporary quarters, and they have few options for daytime shelter.
“Our fellow Bostonians are suffering now, and we simply cannot tell them to wait 90 days or hold on through this cold until we implement a new plan,” said the Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which convened the coalition together with Old South and the City Mission Society of Boston.
Homeless shelters typically require guests to leave in the morning. The city lets people remain at its shelters on very cold days, but many find the close quarters intolerable, said the Rev. Cristina Rathbone, a priest at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul whose ministry focuses on homeless people.
She said her congregants say that indoor refuges get overcrowded during the winter, and tensions begin to boil. And, lacking a secure place to store their belongings, many homeless people have been forced to carry their possessions everywhere they go.
Cleve Rae, 59, who was displaced from Long Island, said it is hard to find a place to spend the day.
“The few places that there are that I’m aware of — let’s just say they don’t like the fact that the homeless hang around there for many hours a day,” said Rae, who slept on a cot on a basketball court at South End Fitness Center with 220 other homeless men until Christmas Eve, when he found a bed at the First Church Cambridge shelter.
St. Francis House, the largest day shelter in the city — its dining room and waiting area have become a temporary nighttime shelter for 25 women who were displaced from Long Island — usually had 30 people waiting when the doors opened at 7 a.m. before Long Island closed, said executive director Karen LaFrazia. There are about 100 now, and St. Francis opens a half-hour earlier.
During the day, it serves 500 to 600 people, LaFrazia said, but can accommodate only 250 or so at a time.
“I think it’s fabulous if people can find another alternative,” she said.
Old South’s sanctuary is normally open during the day for prayer and for visitors who have come to tour the historic church. Anyone is welcome to sit inside, Taylor said, and some of the homeless people who congregate in Copley Square come in from the weather there. But food and drink are not allowed, bathrooms are not available, and visitors may not lie down on the pews.
The warming center at Old South, which will be open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. until April, will offer 30 to 40 people at a time hot coffee and snacks, a place to rest, puzzles and art supplies, and lockable storage.
The center will be overseen by two paid staffers, with help from trained volunteers from Old South and other congregations. The clergy coalition, which calls itself Boston Religious Leaders for Long Island Refugees, is raising more than $40,000 to cover the cost of the Old South and Emmanuel shelters.
Old South’s church council unanimously approved the temporary shelter last week, Taylor said, and when the congregation learned the news, a stream of enthusiastic e-mails popped into her in-box.
The religious coalition formed in November and grew as weeks passed and the city failed to improve conditions for the homeless, the Rev. June R. Cooper, executive director of the City Mission Society of Boston, said.
“We wanted it to be safe and dignified,” said Cooper. “That’s always been our benchmark.”
On Dec. 12, a delegation of clergy met with Arroyo and other city officials. The clergy say they offered to raise money, supply volunteers, and provide space, but city officials declined their help. They also offered to help educate neighbors of the new shelter, but no one from the city called to follow up.
“Quite frankly, we didn’t get much of a response,” Cooper said.
Arroyo said he shared information with the religious leaders at the meeting about the city’s plans for opening the Southampton Street shelter. He said the clergy seemed to be asking the city to staff day shelters hosted by the churches.
“I don’t have the staff to do that,” he said.
Arroyo noted that the Rev. Joseph M. White of the Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel was appointed to the mayor’s task force on homelessness, though White is not affiliated with the Boston Warm coalition. Arroyo said he was sorry that the religious leaders felt the communication was insufficient.
“No one should feel they got no response,” he said.
The religious leaders say they remain ready to help in whatever way they can, but the city needs to take a careful look at what it can do to improve the lives of homeless people this winter, before the new shelter is finished.
“This is a crisis that really needs the government to be front and center in coming up with a solution,” said Nahma Nadich, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “The faith community has a role, but it can’t take the place of government.”
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.