In Harvard Square, Student-Led Shelter Offers Beds through the Winter

Julie Monrad
Spare Change News

On a beautiful November Saturday, enhanced by crisp, cool air and the sun setting fire-red leaves aglow, a group of Harvard students gathered at the University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square, ready to clean. These students, armed with cleaning buckets and scrubby pads, were preparing for the annual November 15th opening of the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS).

Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, founded in 1983, serves to provide the homeless members of Cambridge’s community a respite from the harsh winter conditions fast encroaching. Managed and operated by Harvard students, the initial plan intended the shelter to be temporary. Due to Cambridge’s increasing rate in homelessness though, the shelter has stayed open, but has evolved with time to further help its guests.

In 1991 the shelter founded its Work Contract program, which provides “semi-permanent beds” for its guests and assistance with wading through the job market. Four years ago, in 2007, the shelter added its Resource Advocacy program, which pairs together students and guests to work through the progression into more permanent housing and employment standings. What once started as a short-term aid program has progressed into a well-established relationship between students and the Cambridge community.

November 15th marked the start of the season, when HSHS welcomes guests until April 15th. During that time, those seeking a warm bed at night may enter a lottery for a two-week stay at the shelter. Guests whose numbers are chosen from the computer system are then notified in various ways, including a list posted on the shelter’s door. Yet, while the shelter has twenty male beds and four female beds to offer, about fifteen people call each day hoping for an “emergency bed.” At times they find they are in luck. On nights that a two-week guest spends out of the shelter, they leave a bed for another hopeful person. But as student director Conor Walsh said in an interview, “people will start calling in on the morning of the 15th, and every morning after that…after this first day, we end up turning away most people who call.”

At HSHS, guests not only gain a warm bed, but also receive dinner, breakfast and often times the midnight-munchies grilled cheese. The food served to guests represents the extended generosity of Cambridge. Au Bon Pain and Darwin’s provide HSHS with the vast majority of its pastry needs, while Oggie’s and Harvard University Dining Services donate pizza, soup and other meals. To fill the gaps, the shelter relies on online donations, Harvard grants and government funding to buy standard products such as eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese, which are used to assemble hearty breakfasts for the guests before they head out for their daily routines and the shelter closes for the day. Walsh noted though that HSHS is fortunate in that because all workers at the shelter are volunteers, all donations can be counted on as money for purchasing such staples rather than paying staff members with some and the remaining amount as a budget.

During its open hours, the shelter runs as any public venue – in shifts. Student volunteers work the dinner shift, evening shift, night shift or breakfast shift. Walsh fondly remembers beginning his time at the shelter on the evening shift “washing dishes for two hours” while intermittently chatting with guests or making a last minute grilled cheese. “We make a really strong effort to make [HSHS] feel like a community and not just an institution where we give you a bed and two meals,” Walsh said. Students working the night shift are privy to late night conversations, movie watching, or catching up on favorite shows with the guests. Students running the breakfast shift arrive at the shelter at 6:30 AM in time to make a good meal for the guests. The shelter depends on students’ kindness and willingness to step back from their books for a few hours and reach out to those in their community.

Thanks to donators and students such as Walsh, the shelter lends a hand to countless community members each year, but in a way their work is not always enough. As Walsh said with the heavy tone of reality, “what’s challenging about the shelter is knowing we have to open every year. We have to open, but then that means there is still homelessness. Our shelter alone cannot end homelessness in the square…but I would really like to see a fall come where there was absolutely no need.”

Each year the shelter provides temporary help to those most in need through the cruelest season in New England. While Walsh’s sentiments to see homelessness end at least in Cambridge resonate to many people, the cause proliferates when a commitment is made by the community as a whole, not just students.
To learn more about the shelter and/or help the mission, visit the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter Website at

JULIE MONRAD is a Harvard University student and a contributor to Spare Change News.







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