March 07, 1996
University Gazette


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A Place of Shelter

Students provide a home of sorts for those with no home

By Shawn Zeller '97

Special to the Gazette

With his dignified white hair brushed neatly back, an Eddie Bauer down jacket, and leather shoes, one might easily have confused him for a volunteer. That is, until he, like the several others before him, emptied his pockets and lifted his arms for the metal detector. Certainly, his speech -- charismatic and clear -- would not have given him away, as he asked the University Lutheran Shelter volunteer if the two of them could talk later that evening. "I think talking did me a lot of good last time," he explained.

Later that evening, the man who easily could have been the father of any of the shelter volunteers approached Elana Oberstein '97, the shelter's administrative director. "You know," he said, "I've been to a lot of shelters in the Boston area and you students do the best job of any of them."

Like many of the shelter guests, this seeming businessman/father fit none of the standard stereotypes ascribed to the homeless. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that the University Lutheran Church Shelter is anything but a stereotypical shelter.

For 14 years, since its founding in 1983, this small homeless shelter located in the basement of the University Lutheran Church at 66 Winthrop St. has provided comfort to hundreds, and forged the path to self-sufficiency for those willing to go there. Indeed, the University Lutheran Homeless Shelter is a diamond in the rough of sorts.

Funded by the Greater Boston Housing and Shelter Alliance, in coordination with the federally operated Department of Transitional Assistance, the University Lutheran Shelter is the only shelter in the nation run completely by undergraduate volunteers.

Although the shelter receives annual funding of $27,000 from the federal government, a comparably sized shelter, without the same level of volunteer commitment, would require approximately $100,000 each year to maintain its services.

In addition to Oberstein, the shelter boasts five other dedicated directors, all from the Class of 1997. While Oberstein handles administration and budgeting, Mark Hanson and Jenny Oser run the transitional program and serve as counselors. Christine Perez recruits student volunteers for term-time as well as for school breaks. The shelter does not close during its five-month operating period for any University holidays. Leondra Kruger runs emergency services, directing shelter guests to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, among other things. Sam Nortey is director of supplies, ensuring the shelter is well stocked with everything from underwear to coffee filters.

Not a Risk-free Proposition

Though many shelter guests defy the standard stereotypes, working at a homeless shelter is never risk-free. "Working at a shelter can be a dangerous job," said Oberstein. "We serve convicted felons, people actively abusing drugs, and many infected with the HIV virus. Still, our staff is highly trained and dedicated. Our whole staff is trained in Red Cross CPR and standard first aid."

All guests who come to the shelter must answer four questions regarding whether they are carrying drugs or weapons of any kind, are intoxicated, or are carrying medication. The shelter does not serve any patrons who are high or intoxicated; thus, it is what is known as a "dry" shelter. Guns are not allowed. Knives and medications are held for the duration of the stay.

Benefits of a Student-run Shelter

Still, what might seem like a job for police officers works much better when run by students, according to Oberstein.

"All our guests are calm and tranquil while in the shelter," she said. "No one, volunteer or guest, has ever been physically hurt while at the shelter in our 14 years of operation. My feeling is that if you treat someone with respect, they will treat you with respect.

"Guests feel more comfortable with a 20-year-old volunteer than with an authoritative police officer who addresses them as a number. That is dehumanizing and that's what we try to avoid. Our shelter is well-respected in Cambridge. We're always getting referrals. Someone will call up and ask, 'We need two beds. Do you have anything available?' "

Indeed, student volunteers often serve as friends as well as providers. The shelter's main gathering area, complete with television, board games, books, and art supplies, offers a communal space where volunteers and guests can mingle and have conversations, like the one Oberstein had with the white-haired guest.

Transitional and Emergency Guests

The shelter operates for the five coldest months of each year, opening on Nov. 15 and closing on April 15. Its services include 23 beds; 9 transitional ones and 14 reserved for emergency guests.

Transitional guests are those actively trying to escape homelessness. The transitional guests reserve beds for two-and-a-half months. After a positive evaluation, transitional guests may stay for the remaining two-and-a-half months of the shelter's season. The shelter allows them to save nearly all of their earnings, to pay off previous debts, to maintain a permanent address, and to provide a phone number where potential employers can call. The shelter also provides transitional counseling, access to computers, and literature on finding a job, medical treatment, etc.

The shelter is affiliated with the Phillips Brooks House Association Committee on Homelessness and, as a result, the PBHA Committee on Housing Rights provides interest-free loans to transitional guests seeking to rent apartments on their own.

The emergency beds serve guests who are not yet ready to commit to the transitional program. Many of the emergency guests suffer from mental disabilities or alcohol or drug abuse. Some are simply victims of bad luck. Emergency guests may reserve any of the 14 emergency beds for a period of seven nights. After seven nights, emergency guests must leave for an equal period to make room for others.

A Compromise of Sorts

Oberstein explained that the split between transitional beds and emergency beds is a "compromise of sorts." The transitional program serves a homeless population that is immediately capable of rejoining society. On the other hand, emergency guests are often still trying to conquer their own personal difficulties, addiction and mental illness being the most prevalent. These people are not yet ready to enter a transitional program, yet, they still need a bed on which to sleep and food to eat.

According to Oberstein, "You just can't ignore the nontransitional guests. They still have basic human needs even if they don't show the motivation that the transitional guests do."

Oberstein explained that the St. James's Shelter in Porter Square, which only operates during the summer months, is another student-run PBHA shelter that only services transitional guests. Nonetheless, the St. James's Shelter operates purely on donations. The ultimate goal, for Oberstein, would be to see the University Lutheran Church serving only emergency guests, while the St. James's Shelter filled the needs of the transitional guests. At this time, the federal funding is not adequate to make the necessary changes.

A Cooperative Effort

Because federal funding is limited, the University Lutheran Shelter relies heavily on the cooperation of Harvard University, local Harvard Square businesses, and the Greater Boston Housing and Shelter Association, as well as the participation of over 150 student volunteers. The shelter thrives through a remarkable collective effort. In addition to providing sleeping arrangements, the shelter serves both breakfast and dinner to all who request a meal, regardless of whether they have a reserved bed. Dinner food is collected by PBHA's Food Salvage program in cooperation with Harvard Dining Services, which donates leftover food from University dining halls. In addition, breakfast food is provided by Au Bon Pain free of charge. Pinocchio's Pizzeria, Pizzeria Uno, and Bruegger's Bagels also make food donations. Over school breaks, the Boston Food Bank provides nonperishables such as coffee and cereal.

The shelter also works closely with the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless to ensure that none of Cambridge's homeless suffers on the winter's coldest nights. Blankets are provided at the shelter's door and Filene's department store provides leftover overcoats for distribution. On nights with wind chills of at least 20 degrees below zero, the city proclaims an "ice day." On such days, area ambulances pick up homeless men and women who are on the street and bring them to local shelters. Consequently, bed limits are waived.

Success Stories

Perhaps the most rewarding thing for a shelter volunteer is to see a shelter guest escape homelessness. One woman made a special imprint on Oberstein's life. After a transitional stay in which she saved nearly $1,200, the woman went on to the YWCA transitional program and finally to her own apartment. Last fall, this woman, whom the shelter had helped, provided some help in return.

"Over Thanksgiving I was working at the shelter," recalled Oberstein, "and I'm at a loss in the kitchen. She came down with her daughter and saved me."

Indeed, this formerly homeless woman prepared everything from the Thanksgiving turkey, to the pumpkin pie and the cranberry sauce. After this experience, Oberstein knew that she was, indeed, making a difference in people's lives.

"Presently," Oberstein continued, "one of the men in the transitional program, a former chef, has received a job working as a chef for Harvard Dining Services. We hope he'll be able to move out on his own soon too."

Certainly, for Oberstein, and the rest of the volunteer staff at University Lutheran, affectionately called UniLu, working at the shelter is all about making a difference in the lives of Cambridge's homeless.

"I'm from Miami," Oberstein said, "and where I'm from I simply hadn't seen such a prevalent homeless population. In the winter these people can freeze to death. I live here at Harvard and I want to help my neighbors and make my community better."

The shelter is always looking for new volunteers, monetary donations, and in-kind donations of everything from old clothing to computers. Potential volunteers or those with donations can call Director of Volunteers Christine Perez at 493-2487. She can also be reached by e-mail at cperez@fas.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College