Southern Worcester County’s only shelter challenged by growing need

By Laurie Schlatter
Citizen Chronicle Writer

SOUTHBRIDGE — Dr. John Howland, the soft-spoken executive director of St. Luke’s Guesthouse, sounds a bit surprised to take stock of the homeless shelter a year after officially reorganizing as a nonprofit charity.

“We’re actually doing better than I thought we would,” he said Wednesday in his office at 141 Main St., the address of southern Worcester County’s only shelter for people without a home of their own.

Its mission is to provide Christian hospitality and to promote self-sufficiency. It is “a quiet place to stay while guests work on their problems, especially getting into permanent housing,” according to its website, stlukesguesthouse.wordpress.com.

The guesthouse is a dry shelter, meaning no drugs or alcohol, and its house rules require guests to make their own meals, actively pursue work, any needed documentation and a place to rent during their 30-day stay. The IRS granted St. Luke’s its official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status on Feb. 28, 2017. The temporary shelter relies on grants and tax-deductible donations to try to meet its financial need of $4,300 a month to pay for staff, utilities and supplies. It does not receive any government funding.

Established first as a private effort in 2013, St. Luke’s has served a total of 146 guests, including current guests in the 7-bedroom house that serves a full-time house staff member, women and children on second floor and men on the first floor. The majority — more than 100 — entered St. Luke’s doors seeking help since last June.

Dr. Howland said plans for the coming year include continuing its two-part mission, grow its program, get a volunteer effort going, and add three or four more to its six-member board of directors. In the interview, Dr. Howland reflected on the need in this area for temporary shelter — “a band-aid” on the problem, he called it — and the search for a better answer.

On this one-year anniversary since receiving nonprofit status from the IRS, how is St. Luke’s doing?

“We made it through our first year, thanks to lots of help from many people. It’s really been very touching to see so many people pitch in and help us in lots of different ways. We had a family come by today and brought laundry detergent and a check to donate to the work of the shelter. See, we’re still here, still trying to keep the doors open.”

I saw on your website it takes about $4,300 a month. How are you doing in terms of meeting that goal?

“Fundraising is hard. We raise funds to pay for staff salaries, supplies, electricity, heat, and we get assistance from grants. We have a grant that was given us by the United Way, and several other organizations and local businesses have donated to our work. And then, many individuals have donated, like the family I mentioned that was here this morning. We’re actually doing better than I thought we would a year ago. But unfortunately, the need is great and we really need to be doing more than we’re able to do right now.”

Your website says that there are dozens of people on the streets, and the video says that every night in this community there are men, women and children without a place to stay. Do you have any kind of data on the size of the homeless population in southern Worcester County?

“The only official data comes from what’s called the PIT (Point-in-Time) count, which is done annually (by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and was just completed at the end of January (for 2017). We don’t have the figures yet.

“But it’s very difficult to actually know what the homeless population is. It depends a lot on how you define homeless. There is the obvious situation of someone who is sleeping on the sidewalk, but then there’s lots of folks sleeping in the woods in tents; there’s lots of folks sleeping in cars. And then there is an even larger population of people who are sleeping on sofas.

“We got a call, for example, from a mother and her child asking if we could take them in. They’ve been going from friend to friend every couple of nights and it’s very difficult. They’re homeless. Only because of the goodness of friends and family can they stay with them. Very often we’ll get calls from someone who will say, ‘I’m staying with my mother or my parents, but they’re in senior housing and we have to leave or my mother’s gonna get kicked out.’ Or someone will be staying with a family member and the landlord finds out, and the landlord says, ‘You’re only allowed to have yourselves. You can’t have extra people here.’

“So there’s a huge population of people who really don’t have a home of their own, and they’re going from place to place: the children, school issues, health issues, it’s very difficult. At any one time, I really don’t know how many people are homeless. I know how many are on our waiting list. I can count them for you.”

Here, Dr. Howland reads through the waiting list of more than 40 people, identifying them only by gender, whether a parent or a couple or with how many children.

“One female; one couple; one couple with two children; one adult with two children; one adult; one adult with two children; one adult with two children; one adult with two children; one male; a couple with three children; a woman; a woman; an adult with a 12-year-old; two adults; a couple; a single female; a single male; adult with a cat; three adults with a child; one adult; one adult with a child; a single male; a single female.”

How old is that waiting list? How far back does it go?

“First call is Jan. 12.”

So they’re either sleeping on the street, sleeping in the woods, sleeping in a car, couch surfing. Is that just Southbridge or this whole southern Worcester County area?

“We’re the only homeless shelter in southern Worcester County. That’s our service area, but we can’t possibly serve that whole area. We primarily get calls from Southbridge, Charlton, Sturbridge, Dudley, Webster. Those are the main towns. We get some calls from Spencer. And we get some calls from Worcester, but they don’t go on our list. We tell folks from Worcester to call Worcester shelters.”

You have on your website a limit on how many days they can stay, 30, so by the end of a month, you’re hoping these folks have secured a place to live and a way to pay the rent and utilities, and a way to keep body and soul knit together for a little while longer.

“Right. Unfortunately, it doesn’t often work out that way. We tell folks it’s 30 days or less. But if people are working toward becoming self-sufficient, getting a place of their own, we do give them additional time. Because a lot of times, what people need is time to save up for first, last and security, and they need to find a place, and that can take time. Generally, the maximum we can let someone stay is 90 days.

“For example, if you look at the guests we have right now, two single men just arrived in the last week, and we have a couple who have been here for three weeks; a mother and her son have been here about three weeks; a single man who has been here almost a month; a mother with three children who’s been here a month; and a mother with a daughter who’s been here almost two months now.

“One of the things we really need, and it’s not just true for our area but for the whole country, there needs to be more affordable housing and help for those who are homeless. Shelter is not the answer to the problem. There are government programs in place to help those in need. The problem is they are not adequately funded. There’s a program, for example, called Section 8 housing vouchers and it’s a great program, but the waiting list is years because it’s not funded as much as it needs to be. There is a severe lack of affordable housing, so that somebody working for minimum wage can’t possibly afford a place of their own these days. So the answer is not shelters. The answer is more affordable housing. We’re really a band-aid on the problem.

“There’s some really interesting work being done, started in New York City. It’s been tried in various places, Canada and elsewhere, called Housing First Initiative. Folks who are homeless often have lots of problems, mental health, substance abuse issues and medical problems, lack of employment, disability, all kinds of issues. One approach to try and help these folks get on their feet is to provide services to deal with all these issues. But if they’re homeless, nothing really works well. The Housing First idea is get people into a place and then work on the issues. The research shows that works much better.

“Another approach is what’s called Transitional Housing. For example, Abby’s House in Worcester is a wonderful shelter and was very helpful to us in getting started. They’ve been able to acquire properties and establish housing, so that folks who come into their shelter can then transition to an apartment in a supported, subsidized environment. That’s enabled Abby’s House to serve a much greater number of people, help them become self-sufficient, receive needed services.

“Someday, if we have the ability, it would be great if we could establish some transitional housing so that we could move people quickly out of the shelter into a more stable environment. … That would really make a difference in terms of expanding our impact on homelessness.”

We’ve talked about the background of this place, the numbers and the practical concerns. Tell me, please, about the role of faith, of your faith, in establishing this shelter.

“I’m Christian, a Roman Catholic, and the way I see it, every human being is to be loved, respected and honored, and is my brother and sister. To not provide shelter is unthinkable. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel (25:35-40), said to his disciples, ‘When I was sick, you visited me. When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.’ His disciples said, ‘What do you mean? I can’t understand what you’re talking about.’ Jesus said, ‘OK, let me explain it to you guys. Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.’ So when we welcome someone into the house, we are welcoming Jesus to stay with us.”

Is that faith also reflected in your staffing here and in your guests? Do people understand it when they walk in the door here, that that is what is in action, what they are receiving?

“It comes down to just providing what we call Christian hospitality and being welcoming and and not treating people like a homeless number off the street, but as a brother or sister.

“Sometimes we have to practice tough love, and anyone who has spent any time around a homeless shelter knows that life gets interesting, and we have to ask people to leave for the safety of the house. We have to say no, you can’t do that, folks. But to love someone and let them behave badly is to enable bad behavior.

“So we have to combine the two things that are our mission here. One is the Christian hospitality, and the other is promoting self-sufficiency. That’s the tough love part: If people are not working on getting their problems resolved, not doing the things they need to do to get a place of their own, then give them a warning, but if they don’t make progress, then we say, ‘We need to make space for someone who wants to really take advantage of this opportunity.’ This is not a place to couch surf or hang out. This is for folks who really want to get back on their feet.”

For your information

  • If you need help, call St. Luke’s at 508-764-9800.
  • Tax-deductible financial contributions may be made to Friends of St. Luke’s Inc.
  • A Legislative Homeless Advocacy Day will be held Feb. 27 at the Statehouse in Boston. Visit mahomeless.org.
  • The Cardboard City Homeless Project, to raise money for the St. John Paul II Parish Food Pantry, will be held from 6 p.m. March 23 to noon March 24 at the Notre Dame parking lot, 446 Main St. Contact Matt Hart at 508-765-3701.

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