By William T. Clew | The Catholic Free Press
For much of the season the weather has been pretty kind to Central Massachusetts. There were no really cold days and very little snow. In the middle of December, that changed. For several days, temperatures were below 20 degrees at night. One night the temperature dropped to one degree below zero and wind chill was as low as minus-15.
It was a particularly bad time to be homeless. The city’s shelter on Queen Street opened. And so did the shelter in the basement of St. John Church on Temple Street.
St. John’s Parish has entered into a partnership with the city of Worcester to provide temporary shelter for the homeless whenever the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and/or there is a snowfall.
The church basement had to meet the city’s building and safety codes before people could stay there overnight. The city approves opening the shelter, according to Richard “Richie” Gonzalez, who heads the homeless shelter program at St. John’s.
He said that a task force from the city went to the encampments where homeless people were staying in tents and brought them to the shelters.
The capacity of the St. John’s shelter was set at 35, Mr. Gonzalez said. But on that frigid night in December, 40 or more people showed up.
“We were above capacity,” he said, “and we had to turn people away. It broke my heart.”
St. John’s appealed to the city. And, with Katherine Calano, the Worcester Department of Health and Human Services’ Homeless Projects Manager, and Dr. Matilde Castiel, H.H.S. commissioner, advocating for the shelter, the city reset the capacity to 50, he said.
January and February were mild months. The shelter was open just a couple of days a week, Mr. Gonzalez said. On one day in late February the temperature hit 70.
He said he thought that the winter was over and early spring had arrived. But, this is New England, where Mother Nature has a strange sense of humor. After a few more warm days to start the month of March, night-time temperatures dropped below 20 degrees and then snow, up to 14 inches, blanketed the city.
The shelter filled to capacity, and even a couple of people more than capacity, Mr. Gonzalez said. Volunteers set up cots and distributed blankets in the section of the basement apart from the chapel. A separate area is set up for women.
Mr. Gonzalez said there are 70 volunteers from various parishes, including St. John’s, and some schools. When the temperature drops and the shelter opens he and they are in touch to see who will be available to handle a shift in the shelter.
He said he has three shifts of 10 volunteers each, from 6 to 11 p.m., 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. and 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. The people who stay in the shelter are screened and searched with metal detectors as they enter to make sure they are not carrying alcohol, weapons or drugs, he said. Other belongings are stored for safe-keeping for the night. The volunteers monitor the sleeping quarters and the bathrooms.
Father John F. Madden, pastor of St. John’s Parish, comes into the shelter at about 10 p.m. to offer a reflection and prayer. It is “a little hope,” something for the visitors to take to bed, Mr. Gonzalez said.
Those who are staying at the shelter can enter the after 5 p.m. and are served a meal. The next morning they are out at 7 a.m. and the volunteers put the cots and blankets away and clean the shelter. Those who spent the night can, and often do, cross the church parking lot to the St. Francis Xavier Center soup kitchen, part of the parish’s Food for the Poor program, where they can enjoy a hot breakfast and lunch. In recent weeks, many did just that and were back in the shelter each night.
Mr. Gonzalez said the philosophy at the shelter, in addition to protecting people from the cold, is treating them with respect and giving them hope and restoring their self-esteem.
Richard “Richie” Gonzalez knows what it is like to be homeless.
“I’ve been there,” said the man who now heads the homeless shelter program at St. John’s Parish in Worcester.
He said he spent 27 years in addiction, crime and homelessness and has been in and out of jail. He said his father had died and, when he was 7, his mother “walked out.” He was in and out of institutions and, at a young age, “I had to take care of myself.”
His life became a cycle of “all about me, all about Richie,” he said. He said he spent years trying to stay away from drugs and was able to find moments of freedom. “But I couldn’t retain them,” he said. In 2010, when he had relapsed “and lost everything, God led me to the root of my problem; I was living just for me.”
He said in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, teaches that the birds neither sow nor reap, and the lilies of the field do not work or spin, but but God provides and cares for them. Mr. Gonzalez said he drew inspiration to change from the 33rd verse of that chapter, which says “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you….”
“That was the breakthrough,” he said. “What I was always seeking in life, I found when I was giving it away. It was the sweetest present of my life.”
He is 44 years old and has a wife and six children, three of them still living at home. He is executive director of the Net of Compassion, of which the Bridge Church at 674 Main St. is a part. He said he had met Father Madden previously. They were part of a larger group of people who were interested in helping the homeless and who discussed the problem with city officials. Other churches originally were involved with the shelter program but were unable to meet code requirements, Mr. Gonzalez said.
The Bridge Church at 674 Main St. holds services on the sidewalk outside the church on Saturdays and in the church on Sundays, he said. It and the Net of Compassion have a hot meals and clothing program, peer recovery support, detox placement, transition planning family support, emergency shelter placement and first responders within the street community.