For weeks now, I’ve been looking out my office window at a construction site a couple of streets over. Every day a crane lifts metal beams that will become part of a high rise containing luxury condominiums – the fourth high rise in this neighborhood in the past two years.
What a change from 30 years ago, when St. Francis House opened our doors to serve the growing number of people who were struggling with homelessness. Back then, this area was part of the infamous Combat Zone and greatly needed revitalization. Neon signs and desperation seemed to be everywhere. Except at St. Francis House. The first spark of revitalization began on October 3, 1984, when a Dixieland band accompanied several hundred people as they marched from St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street through Downtown Crossing on their way to dedicate a new day shelter for the poor and homeless at 39 Boylston Street.
At the head of the procession, several religious and political leaders carried balloons and held a celebratory banner. Governor Michael Dukakis, like many in the group, smiled widely as they neared the former headquarters of Boston Edison, which would soon provide a different kind of light.
During the ribbon cutting, several people wiped tears from their eyes as they looked around the new center that had once housed a strip joint and a massage parlor.
Ira Greiff, the agency’s co-director with Father Louis Canino, told The Boston Globe that St. Francis House would be the daytime home of people who had nowhere else to go. “If they stay in a shelter at night, they need a place to go during the day,” he said. “They will be welcomed here.” We had unofficially opened a few months earlier and were already serving the elderly and people who’d been evicted from their homes. “Others are battered women, the deinstitutionalized mentally ill, people with alcohol and drug problems, migrants and immigrants,” Mr. Greiff explained. At the time, Boston had never seen anything like St. Francis House, a constructive alternative to the streets where guests could have their needs met with compassion and skill. Nor had the city witnessed the kind of grass-roots effort that enabled Father Louis Canino, Guardian of St. Anthony Shrine, and his supporters to raise nearly $1.5 million in 30 days in order to buy the Edison Building. Some might call that a miracle. But to Father Louis, it was a practical answer to the growing problem of homelessness, which could not be solved by the Shrine’s simple breadline. He knew that people needed more than sandwiches. “They needed to experience what it means to be fully human, savoring not bread but self-esteem and some sense of dignity.”
In the weeks after the ribbon cutting, St. Francis House served 150 people a day. Guests received clean clothes, meals, basic medical care, and counseling, all of which was provided on our first floor with respect and unconditional love. As rents skyrocketed and rooming houses gave way to condominiums, more and more people needed our growing array of services. In 1986, we opened the Day Center on our Mezzanine floor, which included an art studio. There, guests could begin to see themselves in new and beautiful ways. By 1989, we had refurbished two more floors, added an entire mental health department, and were serving 550 guests a day. Many people had hoped that homelessness would be eliminated in a few years’ time. Yet as the problem continued to grow, our services deepened, as did our understanding of the complexity of homelessness.
In 1995, we started the Sullivan Family Moving Ahead Program (MAP), a 14-week program that teaches vital employment and life skills that help students find and maintain employment over the long term.
Two years later, we opened Next Step Housing, to provide affordable, supported housing to those who have struggled with homelessness, unemployment, and substance abuse. As the face of homelessness continued to change, we saw more and more women. In 2004, we opened the Carolyn Connors Women’s Center and dedicated a full-time counselor to meet the unique needs of our female guests.
Each new initiative met crucial needs and helped guests experience personal revitalization, which in turn brought positive change to the community at large.
Today, as we approach our 30th anniversary, the need for renewal has never been greater. St. Francis House serves 800 meals a day and provides more than 2,000 unique guests a year with a wide array of basic, rehabilitative, and housing services.
Many of our guests have struggled with poverty all of their lives. Others, however, are seeking help for the first time because of difficulties getting a good job and finding affordable housing. But no matter what the need, St. Francis House alleviates people’s suffering, and we continue to develop new approaches to address the underlying causes of homelessness.
As part of that evolution, MAP is building on its tremendous success by creating corporate partnerships to provide internships and employment opportunities for students and alumni. Current partners include CVS Caremark, Panera Cares, Statewide Merchant Services in Boston, Integral Resources, and Walgreens.
For guests who have significant barriers to employment, we created CarryON, LLC, a social enterprise that repurposes burlap coffee bags and other materials that would otherwise be discarded. As employees create useful products, they find direction and purpose.
St. Francis House is also developing a comprehensive strategy to integrate substance abuse treatment services that will augment the individual and group counseling we currently offer. Our Marie L. Arky Medical Clinic, run by Boston Health Care for the Homeless, provides a Suboxone clinic for people who suffer from opiate addiction and want to become clean and sober.
Each new initiative brings us one step closer to fulfilling our founders’ vision of St. Francis House as a place of healing. A place where people can feel the light of hope. Boston needs that light now more than ever. As new residents move into the area, we have an opportunity to create a new kind of neighborhood where everyone – regardless of circumstances – embraces diversity and cares about the common good. I envision a place where tourists, students, business people, and our guests can all work side by side in our kitchen or enjoy live music at a local café.
Thank you for being part of this transformation by supporting St. Francis House. Together, we have done what’s possible, as St. Francis of Assisi once wrote. And in the coming years we will do the impossible by creating a place where homelessness no longer exists and everyone can reach their highest potential.