By Becky Aubut
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — As its rectory has been reborn as transitional housing for women, St. Hedwig’s Church is seeing the finishing touches being put on its building to become the new location of the Sister Rose House, a homeless shelter for men.
“It was supposed to be [opened] sooner but we had a couple of things that delayed us,” said Karen Ready, program manager of the Sister Rose House that can currently be found in downtown New Bedford. “Some things you can’t foresee.”
There were 437 homeless, including 50 unsheltered people in New Bedford last winter, according to the city’s annual homeless count in February. The Sister Rose Home can shelter 25 but it’s very inadequate, said Ready. The new shelter will also house 25 and will be handicap-accessible with a lift being installed that will go down to the basement and first floor, which will host 25 beds in cubicles, and office space.
In the rear of the building will be bathrooms and showers, and in the basement will be the kitchen and program area, with an additional bathroom. There will also be a vegetable garden on the premises, and a courtyard linking the transitional home and shelter where the residents can enjoy the outdoors in a more private setting.
The total development construction cost for the Sister Rose House was more than $1.8 million dollars with financing coming from the city of New Bedford’s Community Development Block Grant, the state housing program’s Housing Initiative Fund, private donations and BayCoast Bank.
The basement of the shelter will be the new home to the Catholic Social Services’ soup kitchen, currently located on Purchase Street. The soup kitchen will also double as a training facility for those looking to work in the restaurant industry.
“We want to look to do things that will make them employable, teach them those skills,” said Ready. “We’re also thinking about those wanting to be a waitress or waiter, to serve the food, to come into the soup kitchen and get themselves that training; that you have to be nice to people, the customer is always right — different things they’re not used to. They’ll feel more comfortable [when looking for a job] having that experience.”
Making the most of the space in the building, the soup kitchen area will host the emergency overflow. All the tables will be put aside and stackable cots will be placed in rows to help temporarily shelter up to 30 individuals from the cold, a blizzard or hurricane.
“Last year was horrific,” said Ready. “I had the shelter open the most since I’ve been there. It was so bitter cold. People do what they have to do. We’re just looking to make things better. Regardless if you’re homeless, you still deserve to be warm, have a meal and some dignity.”
Even if their stay is temporary, Ready said she will still try to reach out and help individuals seek resources and services: “We’ll try to plant the seed so we can try to get others. For some, they’ve been in that lifestyle for so long, it’s just a way of life.”
As construction winds down at the newly-renovated church, an innovative project is winding up with the launching of a new initiative named “The Call,” a collaboration of more than 40 social service agencies in the area. Organized by the New Bedford Homeless Service Providers Network (www.nbhspn.com), when someone calls the hotline at 1-800-HOMELESS, they will be put in touch with Catholic Social Services, who will have direct access to the inventory of all available beds in the Taunton, Attleboro, New Bedford or Fall River area. The program is part of a push by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for nonprofits that receive grants to create streamlined, coordinated services.
“We have somebody on the phone 24/7, and they will know just by looking at the board what the availability is and where,” explained Ready. “All the supportive housing, transitional, shelter — we know where everything is and who has it. They’ve been working on this for 18 months; it’s a big project. I think once it’s really up and running, it’s going to be so much easier.”
Ready hopes the new shelter will be open after the first of the year. In the meantime, it’s business as usual at the downtown location of the Sister Rose House and other shelters, even during the difficult and emotional holiday season.
“As crazy as it sounds, God always provides,” said Ready. “Right before Thanksgiving, I thought I would have to run out and buy turkeys and suddenly 14 turkeys showed up at the door. We did 128 meals at the soup kitchen and all the shelters had their own turkey dinners with all the fixings. We try to go the extra mile.”
Holidays are often the hardest times of the year, with some churches and agencies helping out, calling and asking what is needed. Many of the homeless just come into shelter with literally just the clothes on his or her back. The goal is always to house them, said Ready, but “money is always good. People stop and think it’s our job to get them a home and that’s nice, but when you have no sheets or towels — nothing but the apartment. It’s four empty walls. That’s not a home. It would be nice to have some extra funding to go and buy a used refrigerator for $50; things we don’t think about. You can’t go into an empty apartment and lie down on the floor with blankets; that’s not a home. It would be nice to have that resource.”
“I think that sometimes people forget when they’re at home with family, warm and laughing, there are people who have either burnt their bridges, have nowhere to go, so we make it a point to keep shelter open at the most vulnerable times at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year,” said Ready. “Those are the three most important and we find people missing their family. It’s nice to be at home and enjoying family, but it’s the compassionate thing to think about those who have less and aren’t as lucky.”
Volunteers are always welcome; for those interested, call the CSS office: 508-997-7337.