Blisteringly cold: What Boston shelters are doing for the homeless this winter

At this time of year, a network of city agencies, shelters, street outreach teams, and other community services are making every effort to provide refuge to those without a home.

Winters in the Northeast are notoriously fierce, and conditions for the homeless can be life threatening. The National Weather Service reported that overnight temperatures average in the lower 20s. Over the past few weeks, Massachusetts has been assailed by blizzards; Boston has already seen about 71 inches of snow fall this year.

“As you can imagine, it is tough out there,” said Barbara Trevisan, spokeswoman for the Pine Street Inn, which has about 650 shelter beds.

“We have our shelters open around the clock, and we are encouraging people to come inside.” According to their website, The Pine Street Inn is the largest provider of emergency shelter, job training, street outreach and permanent housing for homeless men and women in New England.

Trevisan said that outreach vans for the Pine Street Inn are working extended hours; every night, vans armed with food, clothing, blankets, and medical assistance scour the city streets.

Lori LaDuke, a spokesperson for Rosie’s Place, a shelter for homeless women in Boston, said, “Our dining room, advocacy department, and food pantry numbers increase in the winters as more women come in for assistance.” Rosie’s Place has also begun distributing winter coats, hats, gloves and scarves.

According to the Boston Public Health Commission’s website, city officials all have homelessness on their minds. The Boston Police Department issues hourly directives to seek out the homeless, and works closely with Emergency Medical Services to assist people at risk. Boston park rangers keep their eyes out for men and women in need as they patrol the Emerald Necklace Parks.

As temperatures plummet, more and more people are searching for shelter. Trevisan reported that in the past few weeks especially the Pine Street Inn has seen its numbers go up significantly. “In our main men’s shelter,” she added,

“We have about 250 beds. All of the beds have been filled, with at least an additional 70 guests each night.”

Beth L’Hereux, codirector of homeless services for the Boston Public Health Commission, explained, “This winter’s a lot colder than the last winter, and so we’ve seen an increase. We’re averaging 33 more a night, and I think that’s directly related to the weather. Some of those people who haven’t come in other times are coming in now.”

Boston Public Health Commission’s Homeless Services Bureau operates two emergency shelters, the Long Island Shelter, which has over 400 emergency beds, and the Woods Mullens, which has about 200 beds. “In the winter,” L’Hereux said, “we put in an additional 75 seasonal beds, and we have been filling them and then some.”

Some people, however, are still holding out. L’Heureux said that many of these people “just don’t like being in a shelter, especially these days, when it’s so crowded,” and may be mentally ill or have substance abuse problems.

If shelter is refused, outreach workers will continue to do everything they can to help. “If [outreach workers] can’t persuade people to come in, they offer blankets and hot food,” said Trevisan. “If someone is in imminent danger, they can work with other emergency services in the city to get them to hospitals.”

Even when shelters reach capacity, they refuse to force anyone back out into the biting cold. “We don’t turn away anyone in the cold weather,” said Trevisan. “We either find open shelter beds at other shelters in the city or have people sleep in cots in our lobby area.”

“We do everything we can to engage [the homeless],” said L’Heureux. “In this weather, we really try to meet them where they’re at.”

(Photo: REUTERS Brendan McDermid)