December 17, 1998
University Gazette


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University Lutheran Homeless Shelter To Undergo Renovations

By Alvin Powell
Contributing Writer

After 16 years in temporary housing, the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter is finally getting a permanent home - right where it's been all these years, in the basement of University Lutheran Church.

Run by Harvard students, the shelter is the only one in the nation that is entirely student-run. And though partitions have been erected and some changes made, it remains essentially a church basement. There is a single shower, in the men's bathroom, for 23 visitors a night.

"[The renovations] are incredibly important. The facility was not meant to be a shelter. Problems come up every year that we're not adequately able to address," said Ari Lipman, a junior who serves as resources and outreach director at the shelter. "I'd say the biggest constraints on the shelter now have to be the physical facility. It's an old basement."

The shelter, run by students from Phillips Brooks House Association's Homeless Committee, offers meals and a bed to overnight visitors. Once full, the shelter distributes meals and blankets to those who need them. The meals are provided by area restaurants and by University Dining Services, which provides surplus food, prepared but not eaten, each night.

The shelter's $30,000 in annual operating costs are paid for through state grants and private donations.

Renovations at the shelter, which is open each night from mid-November to mid-April, are being planned as part of a larger, $2 million renovation of the church, at the corner of Winthrop and Dunster streets.

The shelter renovations are expected to cost about $800,000, according to the Rev. Tom Chittick, pastor at the church and member of the United Ministry at Harvard and Radcliffe.

The renovations, slated to begin after the shelter closes for the winter in April, will include installing more bathrooms and showers, adding additional laundry facilities, making the entrance handicapped accessible, reorganizing the interior space to make day-to-day operations more efficient, creating a cafe-style dining area near the existing kitchen, and upgrading the mechanical and electrical systems.

Though the shelter has been in the church basement for nearly 16 years, Chittick said the decision to renovate the space to make it more appropriate for use as a shelter entailed a renewed commitment by congregation members. Chittick said the decision to go ahead is also a recognition that other elements in society, such as state, local, and federal governments, are not taking adequate steps to address the problem of homelessness.

"To renovate the building, we had to come to terms with the fact we're either in it for the long haul or we had to get out of it altogether," Chittick said.

A factor in the decision, according to shelter board member Ann Ferentz, a research fellow in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology and a science scholar at Radcliffe's Bunting Institute, is the certainty that homelessness isn't going away.

"When we look at what the next 10 years might bring, it's unrealistic to think homelessness will disappear," Ferentz said.

Chittick said the congregation's commitment is not just to the homeless people who spend time at the shelter, but to the students who gain valuable experience and insights from working there.

The space has been designed so that it will be appropriate for other uses as well, such as social service projects and religious retreats. That means that during the months when the shelter is closed, the space will still be useful to the church and the community, Chittick said. One group that uses part of the shelter area each fall is Harvard's Freshman Urban Program.

Harvard employees can donate through Harvard's charitable giving campaign by filling out the green card and enclosing a contribution to the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter & University Lutheran Church Capital Campaign.

"The Community Gifts Through Harvard giving program is designed to encourage members of the Harvard community to support local charitable organizations. This is a perfect example of such an opportunity," said Mary Ann Jarvis, community gifts director. Employees can obtain more green pledge cards by calling 495-1598.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College