CSS shelters offer overflow accommodations during cold snap

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — In the midst of an extended cold snap where evening temperatures dipped into the single-digit marks for nearly two weeks, emergency shelters within the Fall River Diocese managed by Catholic Social Services have become a warm and welcomed respite for the homeless and indigent.

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“I’m hearing that we haven’t seen temperatures like this in more than 100 years, which startled everybody,” said Raymond Duarte, manager of the Sister Rose House and companion Grace House in New Bedford. “I think today makes day 20 and during our total season last year, we opened (the overflow shelter) 43 times. We’re always trying to raise money — that’s our big concern right there.”

Places like the Sister Rose House, Grace House, and the St. Joseph House in Hyannis have seen a steady influx of “overflow” clients added to their short- and long-term guest lists in recent weeks.

According to Duarte, the lower level soup kitchen facility at the former St. Hedwig Church has been filled to capacity during the day and even more critical overnight hours.

“They’ve been coming in and we can at least sit them at tables,” Duarte recently told The Anchor. “Some of them will put their legs up on two chairs and we try to rotate them. I’ve been allowing them to sit and stay in the soup kitchen. Where the weather is this brutal, a lot of towns will have to plan some type of emergency management services to provide help to those in need with these extreme temperatures.”

Thankfully, Duarte said the City of New Bedford does provide about $10,000 in funding to handle the overflow, and he receives another $10,000 from Rise Up For Homes, a collaborative non-profit dedicated to helping the homeless.

“On average, I’d say we have 25 people here (every night),” Duarte said. “The highest number I’ve seen is 32. In weather like this, you will get some people who will come just to get the meal, and we allow that, too. We were only at capacity two or three times last year, and it’s already been many times this year. That’s our major concern with the (remaining) funding.”

But by the time a blizzard dumped up to a foot of snow or more on the area last week, Duarte said they had already used about half of that overflow source funding.

While the day-to-day operations of the Sister Rose House and Grace House are managed and funded through the diocesan Catholic Social Services, Duarte said the additional funding is used to hire per diem volunteers.

“With the money we get from Rise Up For Homes and the City of New Bedford, we’re able to hire per diem staff to handle the overflow,” he said. “We usually staff in four-hour intervals. I try to keep the counts down to keep everybody wanting to come. It’s been pretty easy going and there’s been an endless stream of food coming in and Robin Muise has been a Godsend in helping coordinate the volunteers. She takes a huge workload off my back so I can pay attention to some of the other details here with the main floor.”

Even without the recent arctic temperatures to contend with, Duarte said November, December and January are typically the busiest months at the shelter.

“At this time of year, we tend on average to only have one or two extra beds available on any given night,” he said. “But we tend to be right at capacity on the floors, which is 36 total — 25 males at the main facility and 11 females at the Grace House (next door). And normally it would be 25 in the overflow, but we’re resetting that to 30. That gives us the potential of getting as many people off the street as we can.”

Duarte said New Bedford is unique in providing money to fund the overflow, and there are a lot of other communities in the area without similar resources. Fall River, for example, designates select church locations and rotates them every seven days as sites to handle the overflow shelter needs.

“On average, the overflow might open two or three days in a row, and then there might be a lapse of a couple of days,” Duarte said. “But I think we’re looking at two weeks straight of temperatures (below 28 degrees). We just want to do the right thing here at this agency.”

“It’s not good,” agreed Karen Ready, coordinator for CSS’ Sister Rose Network, which includes the Sister Rose House and Grace House in New Bedford; St. Joseph’s House in Hyannis; and the Samaritan House in Taunton.

Even though they’ve added 10 overflow beds to the existing 50 at St. Joseph House in Hyannis, Ready said they have still been at full capacity every night. And while the shelter will typically close during daytime hours, it has remained open around-the-clock to allow guests to stay inside and keep warm.

“We certainly don’t want anyone to freeze to death,” Ready said. “We’re trying to do what we can to help.”

Unlike New Bedford, many of the homeless on Cape Cod tend to be older and consistently cold temperatures in the single-digits can be dangerous.

“It’s more scattered in the Hyannis area and there are more elders,” Duarte said. “But the need out there, meaning the excesses, isn’t as high as it is here in New Bedford, where roughly at any given time you might have 47 to 52 unsheltered people.”

Duarte said he has also deployed members of his encampment outreach staff to drive around the city in a CSS mobile van to check on the homeless and bring them back to the shelter.

“On a day like today, he could be in the motor home riding around and interacting with any homeless individuals in the street,” he said. “There’s a good amount of them downstairs in the soup kitchen right now. If we did get a call, we would go to the encampments and see how many tents there are and interact with the individuals and try to get them to come in for services.”

Duarte said the winter overflow has been “more successful this year than last year,” and most clients have been thankful to have somewhere to go.

“You can’t please everybody, but more or less sometimes certain populations choose to stay outside because of freewill choices or curfews or they don’t like the direction or there’s too much structure,” he said.

And although making accommodations to handle the overflow can be challenging and may temporarily disrupt the normal flow of the shelter, Duarte said “everyone knows the main idea is to save lives.”

“I’ve even had in-house guests volunteer to cook or help assemble carts and set up tables,” he said. “So in times like this, everyone comes together and I think they understand. Sometimes the best workers are the people who have been through it, because they know what the people need.”

As always, monetary donations are most welcome and Duarte said he has been brainstorming the idea of possibly reaching out to local businesses that might be willing to “buy a night” for maybe $400 or $500 to keep the overflow shelter open.

“We’ve been getting food donations, but every little bit helps,” Duarte said. “These can be trying times because of what people are going through, but you have to be that light. And I’m learning from my guests as well.”

Duarte said it’s important to keep in mind that we all could find ourselves in a similar situation one day, needing a helping hand.

“If I was unemployed, it probably would be a short time before I needed to seek shelter, so I keep that in mind,” he said. “I don’t bank on homelessness — I would give up my job tomorrow if homelessness could be eradicated and not look back.”

Those interested in assisting one of the diocesan shelters are urged to visit www.cssdioc.org/sr-rose-network or call the Sister Rose House directly at 508-997-3202. 

Anyone needing shelter within the Fall River Diocese should call 1-800-HOMELESS.

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