Summer Sanctuary: Inside Another Summer at HSSS
Gha Young Lee is a Harvard student and supervisor at the Harvard Square Summer Shelter.
Harvard Square Summer Shelter; we’re the precious gem under Unilu. People start volunteering with us for various reasons: pressure from friends, desire to do good for society, or just curiosity from always seeing the shelter as they pass the MAC on Winthrop Street. We meet each other by chance from differing origins, but we choose to stay for similar reasons. HSSS is a genuine community where we continuously grow with each shift, from learning about other HSSS members (both guests and volunteers) and forming a family within our shifts to feeling that necessary non-discriminating, humanizing care.
So what is a typical day like in the shelter? We operate in the evenings and run overnight until 8AM. The doors open at 6:15PM, and the night snaps into life as the kitchen lights are cued. Then the staff and volunteers gather, strategizing like Iron Chefs, fiercely devising a plan to cook the best from the resources available for the day. Sometimes experiments happen (and failures, naturally). But the playlist of our choice rejuvenates us, and forward we go. In my admittedly biased opinion, the food we end up with each day is subpar to none, with international cuisines, plenty of flavor, and a concoction of nutrition. And when dinner is served, we become a big family. Guests, volunteers, and staff sit at tables exchanging stories. When the evening shift clears up the dishes and laundry, the overnight shift takes over to guard the peace of the night. When the shelter snaps into life again with the sunrise this time, the cooking is repeated. The end of breakfast relays into the sweeping, mopping, and toilet-scrubbing that refresh the shelter for the next day.
That’s the shelter in less than 200 words – but allow me crack into the core a nd share the true delicacy: the almost surreal familial atmosphere of inclusion and non-judgement in HSSS.
Why don’t we start with the meals, the center of the shelter community. Regardless of one’s role in HSSS, during meals we are lucky people who have the pleasure of sharing good food with better company. In Korean, the word for family literally translates to “eating mouths.” Sharing food and conversation with the guests we see every day, HSSS community members have become a second family. One of our morning volunteers, Audrey, says “I like getting to know the people at the shelter in small ways… How you like your pancakes, if you put pepper on your eggs, whether or not you drink coffee. In that moment, regardless of age or gender or anything else, we’re all just groggy people eating breakfast at 8 in the morning.”
Second, there is the ability of the staff and volunteers to make the environment brighter. They employ the simplest methods to make the shelter experience more enjoyable for everyone – music, creativity in dessert, jokes that turn into hysterical inside jokes, random greetings, and sincere check-ins during/throughout the day. Like other places where many bear scars, a shelter can easily accommodate grimness. Heck, the cruelty of misfortunes and societal abandonment is not an easy burden. The volunteers and staff realize, though, that a shelter is not where we patronizingly “take care of the homeless.” It is a place of social justice where we serve the victims of the system, illness, and traumas of life who often do not receive the baseline care that a human being needs. And once you ask guests about their days, be interested in their voice, and provide them with the simplest pleasures of life that they’re often denied, you will (though not always immediately) see you have served well. I consider this magical brightening performed by the staff & volunteers to be one of the most meaningful actions we can partake in – to be a source of comfort and support for those systemically marginalized.
All in all, the shelter work is not easy, as most will agree. At Harvard, we don’t even do our own dishes. The constant dishwashing, cleaning, laundry etc., often makes shelter staff wonder how our parents do it. We manage the shelter for half a day with multiple volunteers and staff members, yet it takes all of us an entire shift to figure shelter-keeping out. But the hardship is only a sign that we’ve got room for more maturing, and I feel so blessed to have HSSS as a community helping each other do just that.