As Temperatures Drop, Homeless Shelters Face Challenges

{shortcode-44b089587409e80c32fecf2835fdde00027d731b}UPDATED: February 10, 2017 at 9:36 p.m.

A recent blizzard and cold temperatures have proved challenging for Cambridge’s homeless population, with many struggling to find beds in local homeless shelters that have limited space.

Isobel W. Green ’17, an administrative director at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, said the shelter gives out blankets and hand warmers to people who do not get beds in the lottery. The shelter operates on a lottery system, in which directors randomly select people to stay throughout the night.

“We offer meals at the door, so starting at 8:30 p.m., people can come to our door and even if they don’t have a bed with us they can get dinner, they can get a blanket, they can get hand warmers,” Green said.

HSHS opened in the basement of the University Lutheran Church in 1983 to support the homeless during harsh Cambridge winters.


“Initially seen as a stopgap measure that would close after that first winter, the need for the shelter’s services unfortunately increased over the years,” a pamphlet advertising the shelter reads.

But despite the shelter’s long-time commitment to lodging the homeless, HSHS is often unable to accommodate all who need its services.

“I know a person who has been waiting for months to get in,” said Alistair Finlay, a homeless man from Scotland who currently resides in the Square. According to Finlay, it is rare to get housing at the shelter, which only has twenty-nine available beds.

Ana K. Chaves ’18, another of the shelter’s administrative directors, said that while the shelter typically accepts only 24 guests per night, five extra beds are available under on cold winter nights such as Thursday’s winter storm, which brought nearly a foot of snow to Cambridge.

Chaves said that though HSHS would like to increase capacity, University Lutheran Church has certain rules that limit space to ensure guests’ safety.

At the youth homeless shelter Y2Y, which opened in fall 2015, 22 beds are offered through a lottery for 30-night spans and five for one-night stays. Unlike HSHS, Y2Y is “able to accommodate a good percentage” of homeless young people looking to stay, a member of Y2Y’s data collection team said last year.

While winter nights are difficult for Cambridge’s homeless population, chilly days are also challenging, according to Gail Bucher, the director of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter Corporation, an organization that raises funds for the Y2Y and HSHS.

After Au Bon Pain, a shop where employees were particularly kind to the homeless population, shut down a few years ago, the locals have had to find new haunts, Bucher said.. “Now people are hanging out near the subway and the Garage,” Bucher said. “Sometimes they’ll go to the Starbucks and the library.”

—Staff writer Motoy A. Kuno-Lewis can be reached at


Recommended Articles