By Kenneth J. Souza
HYANNIS, Mass. — For some, the mere mention of Cape Cod can inspire thoughts of sandy beaches, summer vacations and expensive waterfront homes.
But like all areas, the Cape also has its fair share of the homeless and displaced — people who have just found themselves unable to make ends meet and simply afford a place to live.
“Everybody would like to believe they’re not Cape Cod folks, but, believe me, they are,” said Karen Ready, program coordinator for the Sister Rose Network, which manages shelters for Catholic Social Services of the Fall River Diocese. “They’ve been here all their lives and the reality is they can no longer afford to live on the Cape, so we’re trying to figure out something creative to see if we can get them housing.”
Since November 1, Ready has been serving as the interim site manager for the St. Joseph House in Hyannis. At that time, CSS took over management of the former NOAH Shelter on Winter Street from the Barnstable-based Housing Assistance Corporation, which had founded the shelter in 1984.
As someone familiar with the day-to-day operations of shelters under the umbrella of the Sister Rose Network within the diocese — including the Grace House and the Sister Rose House, both in New Bedford, and the Samaritan House in Taunton — Ready was perfectly-suited to assist with the transition.
“When I first came here, it was a little bit of a culture shock for me,” Ready told The Anchor. “It was a little bit more than I was used to — the severity of the people with mental health issues, physical health problems, and the level of substance abuse was surprising to me. I also didn’t expect to see so many seniors who are homeless.”
On February 6, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., along with several priests of the Cape Cod Deanery, took the opportunity to visit and tour the new facility for the first time. The bishop also formally dedicated and blessed the St. Joseph House, which he personally renamed to signify a fresh start and better reflect “the mission of our diocese and of our Catholic Social Services,” he said during his invocation.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone involved in this mission of helping people in need,” Bishop da Cunha said. “That’s what the Church is here for.”
CSS began negotiations with HAC more than a year ago to take over the NOAH Shelter, according to Deborah Scholes, chief operating officer for CSS.
“It finally came to fruition on November 1,” she said. “We’ve had some trials and we’ve had some success stories since then. But it’s been full almost every night.”
St. Joseph House can currently accommodate 50 people overnight in double-level bunk beds — 30 men and 20 women — with space for another 16 overflow on cots during the colder winter months. Since taking over, CSS has added new beds and cots and is in the process of making additional renovations to the facility to better meet guests’ needs.
In addition to shared sleeping quarters, St. Joseph House also offers community bathroom and showering facilities, a large kitchen and dining area, a common TV area, and offices and meeting space for staff.
One new exterior addition is a tall wooden fence at the front of the building facing Winter Street to provide additional privacy for those seeking shelter.
“We wanted to do a lot more, but this time of year it’s tough to get things done quickly,” Scholes said. “We invite everyone to come back and visit in the next three months to see all the changes we have in store.”
There are currently 20 people who help staff the facility — many of whom were retained as previous employees of the NOAH Shelter.
In an effort to be good neighbors, CSS and the staff of St. Joseph House have also been reaching out to community leaders for support.
Barnstable Police Chief Paul MacDonald, who attended the dedication service, expressed great appreciation for CSS’ efforts.
“The Barnstable Police Department has been dealing with a homeless population for more than 30 years in the community and just in the short time that Catholic Social Services has taken it over, we’ve seen some dramatic changes both in the appearance of the building and the way homeless people are treated on the street,” Chief MacDonald said. “We are truly, truly impressed with the progress they’ve made and we really appreciate it.”
Ready said despite the stigma sometimes associated with the homeless, the St. Joseph House provides a critical service to the community.
“Obviously, we don’t want to see anyone in a shelter, but shelters are necessary,” she said. “We came here to try and do a job and give folks hope where I think some felt hopeless, and to try to make them understand that they can have the life they deserve.”
Since coming onboard, Ready said she has been able to use her existing connections to find permanent accommodations for 32 people, six of whom were admitted to nursing homes.
“And because I have the luxury of being the network coordinator, I can send folks to New Bedford or Fall River if needed,” she added. “Whereas they’d pay $700 for a room here, they’ll pay maybe $60 in Fall River. So that’s the difference between being sustainable and turning up back on our doorstep.”
Although she’s been hard at work for more than three months, Ready said she’s more at peace now that St. Joseph House has been officially blessed and dedicated.
“I believe God set my feet on a path and sent me here because it was needed,” she said. “And now that I’m here — even though it’s been difficult — I don’t regret it at all. This is more than just a job for me. It’s more like a mission that I need to be able to fight for folks who are afraid or can’t fight for themselves.”
“It’s a work in progress and I’m happy to be here,” Ready added. “I like to think that we are making a difference here and making a difference for them, most of all.”