Providing Shelter in the Time of Storm

November 8, 2011
Providing Shelter in the Time of Storm
Jim Stewart, MDiv '83. Photo: Jonathan Beasley

As the director of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge, Jim Stewart, MDiv '83, is a jack-of-all-trades.

His work one particular day involved cubing and marinating beef, cutting and cooking potatoes, ordering supplies, and—as he often does—trying to help guests of the shelter find more stable living situations.

He supervises student workers, fixes things that need fixing, and, perhaps more importantly, serves as a force of stability and caring ally for the 14 men who rely on the shelter every evening for safe dwelling.

The "other Harvard Square shelter," as Stewart teasingly calls it (in deference to the better known Harvard Square Homeless Shelter at University Lutheran), is a ministry of First Church Cambridge (UCC) and has been serving the area's homeless population since 1987. When I met Stewart in his office in the basement of the handsome church across from the Radcliffe Institute, he answered my inquiries while intermittently fielding questions from first-year HDS student Aline Marie Longstaff, who needed assistance finding butter for the evening meal. Longstaff is one of six HDS students doing a work-study placement at the shelter this year.

"These students do whatever it takes to keep the shelter running," Stewart explained. "They are valued because they care and because they bring a fresh perspective that the guys here respond to."

Seth Ligo, master of divinity degree candidate at HDS, has worked at the shelter for nearly two-and-a-half years. By working with Stewart and alongside guests of the shelter, he has learned, he said, "about Christian articulations of community and a call to service, and I have been able to reflect more deeply upon my own Hindu faith and its lessons about service of our fellow person and God."

Ligo's experience working at the shelter has inspired him to design a program for volunteer work and interfaith exchange between Hindu students at Harvard and congregants of First Church and neighboring Christian institutions.

"It is hard for me to understate the positive effect working at the First Church Shelter has had on my life as a student, as a religious person, and as a member of the local community," Ligo said.

Stewart, a certified field education supervisor, said that, after a dry period when not many HDS students worked at the shelter, a more fully developed connection was established about five years ago. HDS students now are a highly visible and active presence.

Stewart entered HDS in 1980 and finished his master of divinity degree in 1983. During his time at the School, he took an exegesis course taught by the late George W. MacRae and was heavily influenced by the former HDS professor and acting Dean.

"He was an important person for me," Stewart said. "He brought out the importance for there to be an expression of concern in a discernable way to others."

At HDS, Stewart took on field education work at Crombie Street Church (UCC) in Salem, Massachusetts. Though the church no longer operates, at that time the church's leadership was looking for someone to help organize an effort to open a shelter for homeless people. Stewart took on that challenge. Soon, though, things began to turn bleak, as merchants in downtown Salem attempted to drive the shelter out of the downtown area. In 1985, the Crombie Street Church and Stewart were pulled into, as he calls it, "a pitched battle with the town of Salem and with downtown merchants."

The town was prepared to fine the shelter each day it was operating. The result was that Crombie Street had no other choice than to cave to the demands of the town.

"That created an attitude change in me," Stewart said. "There seemed to be a dedicated hostility toward accepting responsibility for the people we were concerned about."

At the time of the Salem incident, Stewart was living at the Center for the Study of World Religions and was affiliated with First Church Cambridge. When the congregation decided it wanted to start a shelter in 1987, Stewart figured he would take on the position as an in-between job.

"It turned into a 25-year gig," he said with a laugh. "I was originally thinking that I would be a consultant to them; that I would run the shelter, but not for pay. It was fortuitous that I arrived at that time, because it provided an opportunity for me to do a lot of things I wasn't sure I would ever get another chance to do."

Today, part of the focus of First Church Shelter is to provide its guests, all of whom are men, with help identifying resources they need to move out of homelessness and into transitional or permanent housing.

"Not everyone goes from living in a shelter to living in an apartment," explained Stewart. "So we want them to be here as long as it is necessary in order for them to have a stable situation."

Even though the shelter is a ministry of First Church Cambridge (UCC), its offerings are available to those of any or no faith tradition.

"Our guests don't have to have any interest at all in what happens upstairs," Stewart said, referring to services held in the church's sanctuary. "But there are certainly opportunities within the broader community for homeless to be ministered to."

Each evening, 365 days a year, 14 men are provided a meal and a safe place to stay and sleep. The guests arrive at 6 p.m. and must leave by 7 a.m. during the week and by 8 am on the weekend.

Shelter guests have access to showers and storage facilities for their belongings. The shelter stays open all day during snow storms and heat emergencies, and it makes special arrangements for major holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

One particularly daunting challenge for Stewart and for the shelter is that it has been level-funded and therefore running on the same amount of federal money as it received nearly eight years ago. Another reason he is so enthusiastic about having work-study students at the shelter is because it would be difficult to run the shelter without the financial allocation of the work-study program, whereby the shelter ends up paying only about 20 percent of the students' wages.

"It makes it a lot easier to provide a calm, quiet, and welcoming environment when we do not have to run on a skeleton staff. Every nonprofit is struggling to meet its obligations right now, but we want to operate a place that is a meaningful next step for people."

The average guest stays roughly eight months. As a result, Stewart and his staff are better able to help the men find benefits or some sort of income. The majority of the men in the shelter need a next step, Stewart claims, and many are addressing some issues that are more challenging than not having a job.

"A significant majority of the men at the shelter have complicated, precipitating issues, ranging from issues of mental health to substance abuse, or sometimes dual diagnoses."

These men tend to stay at the shelter close to a year, because Stewart would rather hold on to someone longer in order to be able to get them set up in a situation where they have a higher likelihood of succeeding.

"There's a stable environment here, but one's homeless problem is not solved because you live in a shelter."

—by Jonathan Beasley