Finding Shelter

A Harvard Square Homeless Shelter volunteer reflects on community

Down the six-o’clock streets of Cambridge, down a flight of stairs, down a ramp into the basement of a church, and I’ve made it to the sun-shiningest summer hotspot with the broad-smilingest crew anyone could hope for, and I feel lucky. I knew a thing or two about the tremendous challenges faced by the chronically-underserved homeless population in the area, and so I started dropping by the Harvard Square Summer shelter a few nights a week just to do my part. Of course, we worked to provide for the needs of twelve guests as best as possible, offering a safe and comfortable night’s stay, hot meals, laundry, and a supportive environment. But as a transitional shelter, we also worked one-on-one with guests to provide a full range of resources and take cumulative steps to transition out of homelessness and into permanent housing and employment.

It was this energy and these people that took me from a few weekly visits to feeling as though I was a part of a community, where I was popping into the shelter almost every night.

It’s fantastic, yes; but what sets this place apart is not its programming, but rather its people. I can feel the life and vibrant energy beaming from my supervisors as they weave around the space, brewing up coffee, putting out plates and firing up the stove. My fellow volunteers are eager to spice up the chili, slice the bread, hop out for a donation run, and wax poetic on philosophy and home states as we share some ripe peaches. Song and dance are known to flare up in the kitchen, along with banter, puns, and abundant laughter. The energy is relaxed, convivial, enthused, and contagious; that sprit carries into our work, making every task enjoyable. Serious challenges like strong heat and moody appliances can never make a dent in the communal vibes. It was this energy and these people that took me from a few weekly visits to feeling as though I was a part of a community, where I was popping into the shelter almost every night.

Harvard Square Summer Shelter volunteers have a BBQ this summer.

Harvard Square Summer Shelter volunteers have a BBQ this summer.

This kind of positive energy makes a difference to our guests. One comments: “Every shelter should be run like this one. The students work hard and are dedicated to this program.” The fact is, much of the enthusiasm and love we have for our work comes from the guests themselves. Always friendly and welcoming to conversation, the guests share with volunteers a wealth of great stories, humor, and experience as we relax around the dinner tables or as we work on case management. One staff member explains: “I have established a wonderful relationship with my client, and I want to have more of that in the future.” Indeed, ask any of the staff and they’ll tell you that conversations with the guests are the most important part of our job, and by far the most enriching part of the shelter experience for us as volunteers. There is an ever-present and mutual atmosphere of kind gratitude and the highest respect, expressed through sincere words and smiles as everyone in the shelter takes a whiff of pleasure from a shared space and a shared experience with exceptional individuals.

More than a place for students and those experiencing homelessness to raise awareness of homelessness and build a coalition against it, the Harvard Square Summer Shelter is a place of reciprocal respect, affirmation, and support. It is full of welcoming friends and pleasant sentiments, more than anywhere else I could think to be on a summer evening. For guests, for staff and for volunteers, it’s a fantastic place to call home for a while.

Lance Johnson is a student volunteer at the Harvard Square Summer Shelter.