“As a volunteer at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, I feel like I’m doing something with a very tangible impact,” said Janie Tankard ’12 (right). Fellow volunteer Jennifer Soong ’14 (left) and Tankard prepare dinner for their guests.

Amanda Swinhart/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Students give homeless a break

6 min read

Undergrads use time off to volunteer at Harvard Square Homeless Shelter

Janie Tankard ’12 saw the homeless every day on her way to and from class at Harvard College. She wanted to help, but wondered if the spare change many asked for was the most effective way to lend a hand. When Winter Break arrived, Tankard decided to use the time to make a difference.

“As a volunteer at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS), I feel like I’m doing something with a very tangible impact,” she says. “I’m obviously not solving the problem of homelessness, but I am doing a small part to show compassion and to help provide immediate relief to the guests.”

Tankard is one of more than two dozen Harvard undergraduates who returned to campus early to do service at the only student-run homeless shelter in the country. She and her fellow HSHS volunteers spent at least 25 hours per week during January providing food and short-term lodging for the 25 to 29 guests who visited the shelter each night. Conor Walsh ’12, an administrative director of HSHS, says that Winter Break is an opportunity for many students to help the needy, to see what the shelter does, and to get a better understanding of the problem of homelessness in the Boston area.

“Most of our guests are local to Massachusetts. They spend a lot of time in the square. Many are chronically homeless, which means they’ve stayed with us for three years, off and on,” said Charlie Hobbs ’13 (back), an administrative director at HSHS. Together with fellow volunteer Peter Grbac ’12 (front), the two visit the shelter’s kitchen where two meals are prepared each day for the guests. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

“Many students have never volunteered with us before,” he says. “We give them an immersive experience and show them how the shelter operates. They learn about issues of homelessness in Harvard Square, get to know the staff and each other very well, and develop new friendships and new partnerships in that way.”

HSHS is a 24-bed facility that operates from Nov. 15 through April 15 in the lower level of the University Lutheran Church at 66 Winthrop St. Guests call in each morning to enter their names into a randomized lottery for any open beds in the shelter. Those that get a slot can stay for up to 14 nights, during which they will also get breakfast, dinner, and snacks, as well as access to showers and toiletries. If temperatures are below freezing or the weather is wet, volunteers will set up five emergency beds to accommodate additional guests on a night-by-night basis.

“We have served 149 unique guests to date this year, and have given out 652 meal slips to guests not staying overnight,” says Charlie Hobbs ’13, also an administrative director at HSHS. “Most of our guests are local to Massachusetts. They spend a lot of time in the square. Many are chronically homeless, which means they’ve stayed with us for three years, off and on.”

The HSHS street team extends the facility’s impact by venturing into Harvard Square to hand out food, blankets, gloves, and socks on cold nights, and to make sure that locals know how to access the shelter’s services. Student volunteers also help guests create résumés and connect them with government support programs such as food stamps and Social Security.

“We try to connect older adults with job training, permanent housing, mental health and social services,” says volunteer director Peter Grbac ’12. “With youth, it’s about entering the job market. We help them to create résumés, and to look at mental health issues in a different way.”

HSHS relies heavily on volunteers from the local community to cover shifts at the shelter during Winter Break, when students are away. Beginning last year, however, the College allowed undergraduates to return to residence early to work at HSHS. Grbac says that the administration’s support has a big impact, both during the break and beyond.

“The College was gracious enough to offer housing to 20-25 students who committed to working at the shelter for at least 25 hours per week,” he says. “Many never volunteered with us before, but based on the response so far, we think a substantial number will stay on during the term. Last year we had 15 volunteers during break. About half continued on with us.”

Charlie Hobbs ’13 clears the snow from the shelter’s entrance. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

During Wintersession, Tankard worked two overnight shifts (11 p.m.-9 a.m.), a breakfast shift (6:30-9 a.m.), a dinner shift (6:45-9:15 p.m.), and an evening shift (9-11:15 p.m.). Each slot had different responsibilities: dishwashing, laundry, and monitoring overnight; cooking at breakfast and dinner; clean-up and prepping takeout meals for street teams and for hungry visitors during the evening. Tankard says that the best part of the work was getting to know the guests.

“I love talking with the guests and learning more about their life stories,” she says. “It has been incredibly humbling and prompted a lot of personal reflection. The guests I have interacted with so far are warm and articulate. One in particular, Michael, used to be a chef and has been really sweet to me, giving me tips on how to cook pancakes and gourmet crepes and on what cuts of meat to buy.”

Tankard says that she may well become a regular at HSHS. A member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship, she says that the service allows her to put her faith into action.

“I would definitely be interested in continuing to be involved with the shelter during the spring semester if my schedule allows for it,” Tankard says. “It’s a very tangible way to love those people that society often prefers to ignore. I have been very blessed through this experience and have really been learning a lot spiritually.”