As Winter Approaches, Cambridge Homeless Shelters Reevaluate Their Options


Homeless shelters in Cambridge are grappling with their fall and winter operations as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a toll in Massachusetts.

Shelters that rely on undergraduate volunteers, such as the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and Y2Y, are forced to contend with the lack of college students on campus. Other Cambridge shelters are working to provide COVID testing and a safe place for people to shelter during the pandemic despite limits on their capacities.

Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, located in University Lutheran Church, will not open as usual starting in November. Staffed entirely by undergraduate volunteers, the shelter closed in March after the University forced students to move out of on-campus housing.

“The pandemic has created enormous challenges for us, because of our space constraints and our student-run model,” HSHS Administrative Directors Matthew M. Jelen ’21 and Alicia Liu ’22 said in an email.


Prior to the pandemic, HSHS served as an emergency overnight shelter between November and April, with 24 beds lotteried off to people for anywhere from one night to two weeks. The shelter also provided hot meals and other resources, with around 200 people accessing its services each season.

While the shelter will not open as scheduled, HSHS staff is still looking for “new ways to provide resources and services,” per the emailed statement. Jelen and Liu wrote that they are working with University Lutheran Church and a Space Renovations Specialist “to enhance and rework the physical space for safe social distancing” for their eventual reopening.

Y2Y — another student-run shelter — has been able to operate at reduced capacity through the year and plans to continue providing shelter to 22 guests this fall, according Y2Y Staff Directors Shea Hausman ’22 and Cecilia R. D’Arms ’21, a former Crimson news writer.

In the past, the shelter closed from April to June and August to October, but it will remain open through this year to address the needs of those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

Paid professional staff currently fill most of Y2Y’s positions, assisting in cleaning, meal, and laundry services, per the emailed statement. A limited number of students in the Boston area will work as volunteers in the fall and winter season.

“The shelter will be operating continuously until our typical season end date in April under a hybrid model with experienced students from Harvard living off-campus volunteering with Y2Y Network under the Harvard Serves Everywhere initiative,” Hausman and D’Arms wrote.

Meanwhile, Y2Y will continue to accept clothing, food, and monetary donations through its website.

Non-Harvard affiliated shelters in Cambridge also face their own challenges in the coming months as they hope to safely house homeless individuals during a pandemic that has exacerbated the housing crisis in Massachusetts.

Located on the corner of Garden and Mason Street in Cambridge, First Church Shelter shifted its operations from an overnight to a 24/7 shelter at the end of March. After housing 14 people during the early months of the pandemic, First Church staff are currently piecing together a plan to continue operating their always-open shelter past the end of September.

“It’s all month to month. We know we’re good till the end of September,” the shelter’s director Jim Stewart said.

Since 1987, the church has offered shelter on a “referral basis,” where people in need are identified by other resource groups and organizations helping the homeless, Stewart said. The church has worked with the Cambridge Health Alliance and Pro EMS to provide guests access to COVID-19 tests, which take place on-site every Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m.

The Cambridge And Somerville Programs for Addiction Recovery operates a shelter at 240 Albany Street that used to house 103 people every night. Now, CASPAR has limited its capacity to 50.

The shelter's decrease in capacity came after 13 of its guests tested positive for coronavirus in the spring, according to Nancy Mahan, Senior Vice President for Bay Cove Human Services.

Bay Cove Human Services, which manages CASPAR, is working with the City of Cambridge to make other shelter space available in order to “de-congregate" the 240 Albany Street shelter, Mahan said. She added that “many people” are choosing not to stay in shelters to avoid contracting the virus.

“In meeting with some men and women who experience homelessness at some of the test sites, several of them said that ‘we don’t want to be near a shelter right now,’” Mahan said.

Like First Church, CASPAR is also working to provide COVID testing to people in need of tests.

The Salvation Army Shelter at 402 Massachusetts Avenue remains in operation to house 19 people, a decrease from its normal capacity of 35.

“There are certainly people more visible on the streets than ever before,” Salvation Army Shelter systems administrator Leonard Oreto said. “And there’s limits to how many people can be kept overnight.”

The shelter anticipates needing more volunteers this winter. Karen Meehan, director of operations at the Salvation Army shelter, said she was concerned about how the shelter will continue to accomodate more people during the cold weather.

“We’ll have to make do, but we’re gonna need help on that,” Meehan said.

—Staff writer Jeromel Dela Rosa Lara can be reached at