Helping Guests Through Every Storm

The February blizzard.The marathon bombing. Where were you during those emergencies?

Most people would answer “at home with my family” or “hunkering down with good friends.” But for those experiencing homeless- ness, there was no “home” in which to take refuge, no place to gather with loved ones for emotional support. Not until they came to St. Francis House, where we help people through all kinds of crises. “We’re an essential service,” says Angel Marte, Supervisor of our Security Department. “We not only change lives, we save them.” That was apparent during the weekend blizzard that dumped more than two feet of snow on the region. “We were ready for the storm and prepared to serve anyone in need, day or night throughout the weekend,” Angel says. On Friday, as the snow began falling, we had a full house, serving more than 500 meals. At the height of the blizzard on Saturday, more than 100 guests sought refuge at St. Francis House. We welcomed people warmly, provided hot meals, and distributed hats, gloves, winter jackets, and pairs of socks to those who came in from the cold. Several guests slept in our Atrium both Friday and Saturday night after getting stranded and having nowhere else to go. Staff members spent the whole weekend in Boston and took turns patrolling the streets around St. Francis House, looking for anyone who might be in trouble. One employee got up at 4 a.m. each morning to make sure everyone was safe. Another employee set up a Ping-Pong table in our dining room for the enjoyment of our guests. One of our Next Step residents helped as well, by repeatedly shoveling the sidewalk in front of our building. “I used to sleep under a bridge,” says Jimmy. “St. Francis House brought me here. I have to give back what has been freely given to me.”

On April 19, Boston shut down again when a “shelter in place” order was issued so police could search for one of the marathon bombers. Workday traffic and pedestrians were replaced by armored cars and soldiers carrying M-16s. We had a full house that day, and staff members worked hard to meet guests’ needs for both basic services and a calm environment in which they could feel safe and supported. “Many of the guests had witnessed a lot of carnage at the marathon and were still processing what they’d seen,” says Jonathan Hill, Supervisor of our Day Center. “There was an unsettling energy in the air that day. And when people were ready to talk, they would find you.” Staff restricted news coverage to the TV in our Atrium, so that people didn’t feel overwhelmed by the bizarre events unfolding in nearby Watertown. “We have a staff that is really good at being present in the moment for people. It’s something we do every day,” says Jonathan. That approach contributed to a sense of calm that everyone felt. Guests were accommodating with one another, and with staff members who served in the lunch line (a bit clumsily) because our regular volunteers were under lockdown at home. “It’s a testament to the human spirit that people who were already in crisis helped each other through a crisis,” says Jonathan.

A few weeks later, residents of our Next Step Housing Program experienced a different kind of crisis: the death of a fellow resident after a long battle with cancer. “When Albert died, people were deeply affected by his passing,” says Kim Kates, Manager of Next Step. “The residents become like family, and Albert was a great neighbor, a big personality.” Residents wanted to mourn their friend yet didn’t know how to do so. They also wanted to help Albert’s grown daughter, who lived far from Boston and had heard only negative things about her father. Kim helped everyone start to heal by offering assistance with funeral arrangements. Over the course of several weeks, she worked with Albert’s daughter and kept his St. Francis House family apprised of plans. She also attended the service, along with several residents, who had the opportunity to honor their friend and share positive stories about him with his daughter. “That helped her develop positive feelings about her dad,” says Kim. “It also showed the residents that their humanity and inherent value were not overlooked.”

As summer turns to fall and then winter again this year, staff members will be ready to assist all of our guests and residents, no matter what storms or crises may arise. “We appreciate who people are now, and we show everyone respect and love because that example affects so many people,” says Kim. “That’s the St. Francis House way.”