International Overdose Awareness Day 2020

International Overdose Awareness Day 2020

By now, we’re all aware of the opioid epidemic that is plaguing our community. At St. Francis House, we have seen up close and personal how this scourge impacts the people that we serve. As part of our mission to rebuild lives, we’re committed to doing everything we can to alleviate the impacts of this epidemic  – and to help bring an end to it.

Today is August 31st, International Overdose Awareness Day, and aims to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death. It also acknowledges the grief felt by families and friends remembering those who have died or had a permanent injury as a result of drug overdose.

Not only are overdose rates over 30% higher for homeless individuals, but rates have continued to climb during the COVID-19 pandemic. The past couple of years, St. Francis House has been grateful to receive critical funding from RIZE Massachusetts, have a strong partnership with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) and have added valuable members to our staff with lived experience in order to support our guests with substance use disorder.

Changes we have made to our day shelter model to reduce overdoses at St. Francis House include:

  • RIZE room; installed a few years ago in our atrium, a “monitoring chair” and a BHCHP nurse are available with the goal of assisting our guests who are over-sedated or otherwise feeling the effects of opioid use.
  • Practice of harm reduction; our team actively works with guests to engage those who are using or addicted to substances, reduce their risk of overdose, and conduct important relationship- and trust-building activities that can lead to treatment.
  • Access to support; working with BHCHP clinic on the 2nd floor of St. Francis House to increase the number of people who have access to suboxone, a medication used to treat opiate addiction.

In addition, this past year we opened our Recovery Support Center, which aids our guests in holding tight to their sobriety. Looking towards the future, we hope to explore other forms of treatment on-site.

We believe that if we very intentionally engage individuals with opiate addiction in non-judgmental ways, free of stigma, they will be less at risk of fatal overdose and far more likely to seek the treatment they need for their condition.  This approach further enhances the many strengths we have in connecting with our guests and gives us additional resources to truly make a difference.

The unsinkable Shooze Cruise!

Seventeen years ago, then-future St. Francis House Board Member Tim Nolan “invented” the Shooze Cruise as a way to raise critical funds for SFH programs and services and collect needed shoes for our guests, all while getting the next generation involved with our organization. Tim was also the founder of SFH’s Emerging Leaders, a group for young professionals who support our mission – and host the annual Shooze Cruise.

This year, we weren’t going to let the pandemic stand in our way.

After all, shoes matter when you’re out in the streets all day, and each year our guests count on the Shooze Cruise to restock our shelves.

So we re-envisioned the Shooze Cruise as a virtual event and Carrie Neff, our amazing Event Coordinator, dove right in to make it happen.

MC’d by Captain Tina and Captain Carrie, the good ship S.S. Virtual dropped virtual anchor on Wednesday, August 5th at 7 p.m. Over 250 attendees jammed from the comfort of their couches along with SixFox Whiskey and DJ Matthew B, and took a break from all that jamming to laugh along with comic Quinn Alexander Fontaine.

If you want to see a bit of what you missed, check out our highlights reel on YouTube:

We were blessed with “fair winds and following seas,” and the evening was a great success. We raised over $30,000 and collected 200 pairs of greatly needed and eagerly anticipated shoes.

Thank you to our wonderful corporate sponsors:

Captain Sponsors
BRIGHTSPHERE Investment Group, Statewide Cleaning Services, and Webster Bank

Commander Sponsor
Avalon Bay Communities

First Lieutenant Sponsors
East Boston Savings Bank, J.M. Services, LogMeIn, Mellick & Porter, RKD Group, Toshiba

And to our esteemed non-corporate First Lieutenant Sponsor, Tim Nolan! No words, Tim, for how much you’ve done for St. Francis House over the years.

In addition to attendees who sent in a brand new pair or two, many thanks also go out to our friends at for their generous donation of shoes. (It’s not too late to donate a pair or two from our wishlist!)


And a special congratulations to Carrie Neff for getting the S.S. Virtual out onto the high seas of a virtual Boston Harbor, and back in port on perfect time!

Volunteer of the Month: Jerry Woods

As part of our efforts to keep our guests, our tenants, our staff, and our volunteers safe from the COVID-19 virus, we temporarily suspended our volunteer program in March until further notice. Our volunteers are a vital part of our mission: a powerful crew who served 32,977 meals to almost 2,000 individual guests from January 1st, 2020 until we suspended our program on March 13th.

Every week, Jerry Woods would be one of the team, serving several hundred of those meals to our guests. Jerry has been a volunteer in the St. Francis House kitchen for 20 years.

“Jerry is a beloved and dedicated volunteer of St. Francis House. His sense of humor, hospitality, and commitment have brightened guests’ dining experience for decades, as well as strengthened the community bond among volunteers and staff.” – Madeline Lessing, Volunteer Services Coordinator

Read on to learn more about our Volunteer of the Month, Jerry Woods.

When did you start volunteering in general and when did you start volunteering with St. Francis House? 

I retired in 1998 after 39 enjoyable years of teaching. After an idle two years, The Boston Globe had an article about places in the city where volunteers are needed, and St. Francis House was on that list. I have had a rewarding 20 years working with people of high quality.

What do you enjoy most about volunteering with SFH?

Being part of the true spirit of giving. As an unanticipated bonus, I have made some very great friends: Bob, Jane, Steve, and Gerry to name a few.

Do you have a favorite story or moment that really influenced or shaped your work with SFH?

I couldn’t name one, there are just too many stories. The entire SFH volunteer list and staff are filled with great people (like the above mentioned), who make every shift a story.

What have you learned through volunteering with SFH?

Volunteering has taught me just how strong the spirit and mission of St Francis House is. From the administration to the social workers to the kitchen staff and everyone in between – you can see it and feel it in every guest interaction.

And finally… why do you choose to donate your time to the guests of St. Francis House?

20 years ago, it was about where in Boston volunteers were needed. I have continued to volunteer every week since then because of the spirit of St. Francis House. The only thing that has kept me away is a global pandemic – I hope that demonstrates just how rewarding my weekly drive from Plymouth to Boston is. As soon as it is safe, I hope to return to the wonderfully smooth operation again.

Despite the Quarantine, Dog Care Academy Graduates

In late June, the graduation ceremony for the St. Francis House Dog Care Academy was held: a picnic in the park where the graduates sat socially distanced, recounted their experiences, and shared their hopes. While she knew that there was no predicting the future, especially for a new program like Dog Care Academy, this wasn’t quite the graduation that program coordinator and instructor Leah Widdicombe had envisioned when the Academy welcomed its class in January.

“When we set out, I told the participants that we weren’t sure exactly what was going to happen with the class,” Leah says. “Everyone knew they were testing a new program, and we established upfront that what was needed was a mindset of flexibility. As it turned out, having this mindset was an incredibly good thing.”

Dog Care Academy provides skill-based training and creates career paths for those interested in joining the growing pet care industry. It is a six-month paid internship program that combines hands-on experience and classroom training. As originally conceived, the interns would spend 15 hours each week at The Urban Hound at St. Francis House (located in the same building as The Union, St. Francis House’s affordable housing building) learning the ins and outs of dog daycare. In addition, interns would spend an hour a day in a face-to-face seminar setting.

As the instructor, Leah – with a bachelor’s degree in animal behavior, a master’s in animal and public policy, and years of work in the field – had perfect credentials for the task. During the face to face sessions, she focused on three categories:

  1. Personal professional growth (finance, budgeting, computer proficiency)
  2. Employment readiness to become part of a workplace (teamwork, communications skills)
  3. Animal-related information (human-animal interaction, “Animal Law 101”, service animals vs. emotional support animals, etc.)

Each week would also feature a lecture from The Urban Hound on some aspect of the dog care business.

After a one-week trial period, during which potential interns discerned whether the program was a good fit for them, Dog Care Academy kicked off on January 27th with four participants. And then, after 7-weeks of hands-on work as part of their 25-week program… COVID-19 hit.

“When we were first told we’d be working from home, I thought that it would be a temporary thing – a minor disruption,” Leah says. “Soon enough, reality set in and I realized that we were going to have to change things up. Not only would we not be able to meet face-to-face, but the hands-on work wouldn’t be able to happen.”

While keeping in touch with the interns via check-ins to see how they were doing, Leah went through the curriculum and devised a training plan that would help the interns develop their skills even if they wouldn’t be able to actually work with animals. This was a challenge. Since the interns had limited access to computers and the Internet, she knew that the curriculum would need to be paper-based. But she didn’t want to create too much of a school homework atmosphere. She created packets of reading materials and exercises to keep the interns learning and engaged.

She also began coming in every other week, on the days the interns came into St. Francis House to pick up their stipends, to meet with each program participant individually. “It was very grounding for me to learn how the group members were doing under such difficult circumstances. Their strength and determination amazed me. Meeting with them also showed me how much connection mattered. It helped pull people out of their quarantine reality and helped make them feel that they were still part of something.”

Beginning in June, Dog Care Academy transitioned to job hunting. The group worked on their resumes, honed their job skills, and connected with St. Francis House employment specialists. Three people completed the course, optimistic about their job prospects, and eager to embark on careers doing something they love.

For as long as they like, Dog Care Academy grads will remain valued members of the St. Francis House family. “As we sat there at our graduation picnic, two things struck me,” Leah says. “How flexible and resilient these folks are. And how much they trust us. There’s a true belief that we care about their futures. St. Francis House provides hope for people’s lives, and Dog Care Academy is a good example of that hope.”

Graduates of Dog Care Academy have access to the numerous alumni resources offered through the Workforce Development Department at St. Francis House. While the future of our in-person programming is uncertain at this time, we’ll be sure to keep our community updated.

Thinking about Shoes and Socks

Unless we’re shoe shopping, or searching for that one stray sock that somehow escaped from the dryer, most of us probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about shoes and socks.

It’s a different story entirely if you’re someone who’s experiencing homelessness. 

If you’re living on the street, you’re on your feet a lot. You’re doing a lot of walking around, whatever the weather. And you’re on your feet. A lot. You’re standing in line for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner and a bed for the night. Having comfortable, sturdy, well-fitting shoes is critical to your survival. Worried that their shoes might be stolen, many of those who are unsheltered rarely take them off. And if something happens to your shoes – a worn-down heel, a hole in the sole – you may not have the money to pay a cobbler to make the fix.

Socks matter, too. Good socks provide a layer of protection. They help cushion the bottom of your feet and help prevent blisters. Having access to clean, dry socks can go a long way to avoiding foot infections. But you may only have the one pair that you’re wearing, and no access to laundry facilities.

At St. Francis House, shoes and socks are always in demand. And while we can usually help our guests out with socks, we rely on our community’s support to supply our guests with an adequate selection of shoes. Sometimes, our guests are so desperate that they’ll take a pair that are the wrong size.

We’re always in need of shoes. Preferably new shoes, since shoes that are anything other than barely worn have been broken in already and will have the imprint of their original owner’s feet. So they’ll never fit someone exactly right.


For the last 17 years, St. Francis House’s Emerging Leaders have sponsored a boat party to raise money and collect shoes. This fundraiser has brought us thousands of pairs of new sneakers and shoes. Many of our guests know when the Shooze Cruise is happening, and they schedule their clothing appointments to take advantage of a time when our shelves will be well-stocked. While our clothing distribution program has changed with the pandemic, we continue to fill daily requests for clothing and shoes. 

This year’s Shooze Cruise will be virtual. While it won’t be the same as our in-person events have been, we’re very excited that, despite COVID, the Cruise will go on. There’ll be musical acts, comedians, and raffles that you can enjoy (barefoot, if you’d like) from the comfort of your own home.

If you’d like join us for the Cruise, you can purchase your tickets here. When you sign up, you’ll receive a link to Amazon, where you can order shoes or sneakers from our wish list.

If you’re not able to join us, but would like to donate a pair (or two) of shoes, our wishlist can be found at

Our guests are always thinking about shoes and socks. With your help, we’ll be able to take that one worry off of their minds!