Cambridge volunteers create a daytime shelter for the homeless

MD-Daytime shelter for the homeless_Building 2x

Dorchester Banner/Gloria Rojas
The place needs some fixing up, but with volunteer help they hope to have the new shelter ready this season.

CAMBRIDGE — With the arrival of the cold months, the City of Cambridge has made its yearly preparation for the sheltering of homeless people. With its recent ribbon-cutting for the brand new House of Hope, the Salvation Army now provides 26 beds, the biggest piece of the pie in available shelter for the homeless. The Wesleyan Church also opens it doors to the homeless.

The federal government’s definition of the homeless is an individual or family that resides in a place not meant for human habitation, or in an emergency shelter for a length of time. The individual or family head must have a serious condition such as diagnosable drug use disorder, serious mental illness, developmental disability, post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive impairments resulting from a brain injury or chronic physical illness or disability. Veterans and young children are a part of the homeless profile.

The shelters operate from early evening for dinner, provide a night’s sleep in a clean, warm place, and serve breakfast. Then the homeless must leave the shelter in the morning with a bag lunch. The winter day means back to the cold streets, the abandoned buildings, vehicles, stores and the library.

Many citizens object to the visibility of homeless people, because their shabby or unkempt appearance may discourage business or traffic in public places. In fact, to curb the presence of homeless people, other jurisdictions passed laws to prohibit loitering or sitting on public benches. But, because discriminating against the homeless is illegal, no one, not you, not me, not the town fathers who wrote the legislation, can sit or loiter either. That was not the answer, but a remedy had to be found.

Compassion and generosity supplied the answer in Cambridge when two concerned citizens, Sue Monaghan and Christine Barlow, approached Alan McRae of the Anchor Point Thrift Shop on Meadow Avenue. Together they arrived at a solution — a day center for the homeless. They sought the real estate savvy of Commissioner Gage Thomas. Many people know that the shelters can’t provide round-the-clock access, but are not aware of the need for a place to spend the day.

Says Commissioner Thomas, “Winter doesn’t operate on a 7 to 7 schedule, so when an Anchor Point Thrift Shop Board member approached me, fortunately I could direct them to a spacious house, a foreclosure in dire need of repairs in a commercial-zoned area that had been purchased by an investor.”

Alan McRae saw the potential of the house. With its many rooms and an attached warehouse, it could provide a comfortable place to sit, talk, read, stay warm, have lunch … a safe place that enables the homeless to connect to services like mental health and addiction programs … a room where the families with homeless children can find school help, books, even kindness.

Having rented the neglected house from the willing landlord, the group recruited financial backers like the Robbins Foundation, the Elks Club, and private contributors. Besides money, Alan McRae has recruited a group of men (maybe women too) who will be arriving en masse in the next two weeks to perform a miracle. The foreclosed house needs new electric, new heating, new drywall, a laundry for washing clothes, showers for washing people, an entry with privacy, a porch … it’s like one of those enormous makeovers on HGTV. The cleaners and carpenters, painters and plumbers, are all volunteers. Some are presently getting needed training. The lease has been signed, the workers have been scheduled.

If a foreclosed house can be transformed with people donating and laboring with purpose, certainly some of our homeless population may undergo a change too. Alan McRae, who also runs the Anchor Point Thrift Shop, says some of the homeless are ready to re-enter the working world and he envisions running programs to help them acquire skills like cosmetology, sewing travel bags, refinishing furniture, and other working skills.

Some local churches and private donors have already stepped forward and volunteered time and funds for the rehab. More volunteers will be needed when the house opens to receive the people who need it. For now, the location of the house is not being publicized lest people look for it and have to be turned away disappointed. But its doors will open soon, its hinges oiled by Cambridge’s community concern and contributions.

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