Confronting record-breaking low temperatures earlier this month, some of Cambridge’s unhoused residents sought refuge in shelters offering extended hours last weekend, while others faced the cold.
Harvard’s two student-run homeless shelters, Y2Y Harvard Square and Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, opened during the day in addition to their regular overnight hours.
Y2Y Volunteer Director and Tufts junior Annie S. Li sent out an email calling for emergency volunteers during the cold snap, asking anyone interested to sign up for extra shifts during the day. Y2Y operates on a peer-to-peer model, where volunteers aged 18 to 24 — many of whom are Harvard students — serve guests of similar age.
“The extreme weather puts our guests in danger because Y2Y normally operates as an overnight shelter,” Li wrote. “As a result, in order to provide a safe and warm space for the guests, we will be opening the whole day Saturday, Feb. 3.”
“We actually did not know how many people we’re going to expect, which is really surprising that we were able to get more than enough volunteers who were willing to come in,” she said in an interview last week.
John U. Ficek ’25 — one of the emergency volunteers at Y2Y — said he was prompted to volunteer by the impending weather conditions.
“I was thinking about how it was quite literally going to be lethal temperatures that weekend. And then it just so happened an hour later after I thought to myself that an email was sent down asking for help for that day, so I was happy to help,” said Ficek.
Despite the cold, Y2Y did not experience an influx of guests during last weekend, likely because the shelter stopped providing emergency beds, according to Li. She added that not many people have been entering the lottery to get a bed in the shelter this winter.
“We’re pretty surprised about it, because it’s pretty cold outside — it’s winter season,” Li said.
Mark D. Kingsbury, an unhoused person who frequents Harvard Square, said he was outside during last weekend’s record-breaking cold temperatures when a passerby called an ambulance for him.
“I was like, what? I didn’t call an ambulance, I’m okay. I mean, I was under a lot of layers,” Kingsbury said. “It was like six [degrees] — it was in the range I can still do.”
Jim Stewart, director of First Church Shelter in Cambridge, said the facility extended its open hours in response to the weather but did not see an increase in guests last weekend, adding that a “significant number” of unhoused people “don’t like to be inside.”
“We stayed open all day — we’re usually closed until four o’clock on weekdays, but we remained open,” Stewart said. “We actually didn’t get a lot of calls from people looking for shelter.”
Though First Church Shelter and Y2Y did not experience a rise in people seeking shelter over the weekend, Kingsbury says that some areas became packed due to the cold.
“Everybody went to South Station. I was told that it was pretty crazy there — it was a free-for-all,” Kingsbury said. “I was like ‘wow,’ that’s just a lot of homeless people that are just crowding into places to stay warm.”
Kingsbury added he has stayed overnight in shelters ever since arriving in the Cambridge area approximately six years ago, including during last week’s cold snap. When not in the shelter, he said he keeps warm by going to public spaces, such as the Smith Campus Center and the MBTA system.
“The transit system is definitely something to use. I remember sleeping outside, and it’d be too cold in the morning, and I would get up at five, just get on the train, and take a nap on it,” he said.
In addition to seeking shelter, many unhoused people require additional layers and winter jackets to endure prolonged periods of time outside, according to Susan Jones, an unhoused person who spends time in Harvard Square.
Jones, who stayed with a friend during the cold snap, said she acquired the majority of her winter clothing from donations to the Quaker Church on Brattle St.
“You can go there every week and get what you want — get you a few pairs of pants, shirts, coats, whatever you need,” said Jones, “So they’re very helpful.”
In addition to the Quaker Church, Jones said she also took advantage of the outreach teams from churches and multi-service centers distributing hand warmers and gloves in the greater Boston area.
Jones added she empathized with the individuals who remained outside during the cold weather, recalling one instance when she was outside following a period of heavy snow.
“Trying to even get warm — I just felt terrible for the people who were stuck out here, you know? Because I know what it’s like,” Jones said.