Campus & Community

Student-run haven gives shelter — and a boost — to homeless

5 min read

The song tells us that there is “no place like home for the holidays,” and soon, many on the Harvard campus will be destined for far-flung places, both dear and familiar. The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS) helps those who are not fortunate enough to have a home at all.

HSHS is the only shelter in the country led entirely by college undergraduates; it is a program of the Phillips Brooks House Association, Harvard College’s student-run public service organization.

The shelter, located in the basement of the University Lutheran Church, is open when the streets of Cambridge are coldest: Nov. 15 through April 15, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. It houses 20 beds for men and four beds for women and is full most every night, with requests often outnumbering available beds.

“First and foremost, our mandate from the state is to be an emergency shelter, to get people in from the cold,” says Peter Ganong ’09. “When it’s snowing, raining, or freezing outside, beyond our 24 beds, we put out as many cots as possible.”

Meals are served seven days a week to guests, and are given out at the door for those who don’t have a bed for the evening. Harvard Square eateries such as Au Bon Pain, Oggi, and Darwin’s Ltd. donate food to the shelter. And Harvard University Dining Services donates food from the Adams House dining hall every evening.

Student volunteers come to know guests on a personal level, which is one of the most eye-opening aspects of their experience.

“I think that that word ‘homeless’ can become all-encompassing, defining the essence of who you are,” says Shane Donovan ’09. “You don’t have to spend long here for that stereotype to go away pretty quickly, because when you are eating dinner with somebody in this space, your first thought is not that ‘this person doesn’t have a house,’ you just interact with them as a person.”

Resource advocates at HSHS, who are available nightly, provide assistance with education, employment, legal aid, and housing. For Max Yelbi, 20, a former guest of the shelter, they have had a profound impact. Yelbi was born in the Ivory Coast, grew up in France, and came to America in 2005. Today he is a student at Bunker Hill Community College, and through HSHS, he found the resources to apply to transfer to a four-year college. Shelter volunteers helped Yelbi take the SAT and find an interview suit, but most importantly, he says, the students have always been there for him.

“This has been the most incredible experience that I have had so far in America,” says Yelbi. “These students have done so much for me. I never would have had this opportunity at another shelter.”

Yelbi has just been accepted with a full scholarship to Hamilton College for spring 2009. While elated to know that he has a place at such a prestigious school, he is also waiting to hear from Amherst College, which is his first choice. He hopes to study biology.

“My lifelong goal is helping poor people, especially in West Africa, since it is where I am from,” says Yelbi. “What I really want to do is to use the knowledge that God gave me to serve people.”

While HSHS’s core mission is to serve as an emergency shelter, new programming has focused on helping guests find a permanent home. Resource advocates, who are also Harvard undergraduates, receive training from National Student Partnerships, a national nonprofit organization that connects people in need with the resources necessary to become self -sufficient.

Guests who work a set number of hours per week and meet certain requirements for income are eligible to apply for the Work Contract program. Those accepted can stay at the shelter for up to three months continuously, during which time they can save money toward the deposit on an apartment or house, says Eleanor Wilking ‘09, director of the program.

HSHS is the largest program of the Phillips Brooks House Association, with more than 200 volunteers. This number includes 14 directors, who manage every aspect of running the shelter, including food, in-kind donations, administration, and the Work Contract program; and 14 supervisors, who manage overnight shifts. All of the directors and supervisors are Harvard undergraduates. Volunteers, who are mostly Harvard students, staff the shelter throughout the evening, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 a.m., in four shifts.

HSHS has earned a reputation as a safe place for those with few options. Compared with other shelters, there is a high volunteer-to-guest ratio, and it is “dry,” meaning guests cannot be under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. It’s referred to as “The Ritz” by guests, according to Mariah Evarts ‘09, director of in-kind donations.

Now in its 26th season, the shelter was originally a collaboration between a Harvard Divinity School student and the pastor of the University Lutheran Church. Through the years, HSHS management has transitioned to Harvard undergraduates.

“We’re smack-dab in the middle of campus,” says Donovan, “but I have never felt so outside of Harvard, in a refreshing way, than being here.”