Overnight shelter at a local hotel? Challenge Accepted!

Last fall, the City of Boston asked St. Francis House if we could run an overnight shelter for them. With winter just around the corner, there was heightened concern about an influx of people who’d been sleeping outside when the weather was tolerable, but who would now be looking for a place to stay the night. With winter, there’s always an uptick in demand, but with the pandemic, the situation was especially dire. With COVID, the shelters had needed to “deconcentrate”, moving beds further apart and taking other emergency measures that translated into fewer beds available for those in need. 

Could we run an overnight winter shelter? One where the guests could stay for the winter without having to sign up daily at an overnight facility like the Pine Street Inn, and where they could keep comfortable and out of the elements during the day….?

Our answer was yes!

After reviewing a number of different sites, our team decided on the Charles River Inn in Brighton, a basic, no-frills hotel that would allow us to accommodate 100 residents in need of a place to stay, with a special wing to be dedicated to women. St. Francis House has already had experience with this location, as last spring we managed a COVID-19 isolation facility there for ten days, solidifying our choice as the right one. 

Each room already had a mini-fridge, a microwave, a bathroom, and a TV, and to accommodate two to a room, we swapped out some of the king-sized beds and replaced them with two doubles. In addition, the Charles River Inn is located in a commercial area, limiting disruption to a residential neighborhood. The site was nearly perfect for the long-term stays we were envisioning for our guests.  

Andrea Farina, our Vice President of Program Strategy and Initiatives, sprung into action to put everything in place – getting the lease, insurance, and permitting issues squared away; hiring temporary staff; arranging for food, cleaning, and laundry services; planning for onsite workforce development and health services, and worked with the city to identify guests who we felt would be able to manage well in this setting. 

On December 1, St. Francis House began onboarding guests. With a capacity of 100, the resident population has held steady between 90 and 100.

The guests “checked in” knowing that they had a place to call home through March – the date has now been extended until the end of April – and would have this time to focus on finding permanent housing.

“It was amazing to see so many people who’d been living day to day on the streets and in the shelters have a stable living situation for the winter months,” Andrea says. 

“A number of the folks spent their first couple of days pretty much just sleeping. For so many, a room at the Charles River Inn was the first time in a long time that they’d had a quiet, more private, and more comfortable place to lay their head at night than a cot in a noisy room where hundreds are sleeping (or trying to sleep).”  

And, come morning, they could sleep in, a luxury not afforded them at an overnight shelter. 

Andrea and Angel Marte, St. Francis House Manager of Community, Engagement, and Safety, work full time at the Charles River Inn. A temp agency provides security and guest engagement professionals, augmented as needed by St. Francis House staff. Three meals a day are provided. Women’s Lunch Place brings in breakfast and lunch, and dinners are provided by the Pine Street Inn’s iCater program. (And for residents who want an occasional change, there’s an IHOP and a McDonald’s nearby.) Pine Street Inn’s iLaundry program takes care of the towels and sheets, while there’s an onsite washer-dryer for personal laundry. And if guests have clothing needs, clothing is brought over from 39 Boylston. Rooms are cleaned twice a week, common areas daily. 

There’s a bus stop not far from the Inn, with a bus route into downtown Boston. For those with medical and other appointments, we provide cab vouchers. 

“I’m so happy to see how well things have gone,” says Angel. “We’ve only had a couple of people who turned out not to be a good fit, and some folks have been housed, there really hasn’t been many turnovers. It’s so gratifying to see so many people thrive in this environment.”

Two of the most important challenges our guests face are permanent housing and a job. Women’s Lunch Place works with the women on housing stabilization and placement; Homestart works with the men. To date, eight people have found permanent housing. Six others should be housed within the month, and another five or ten are on a positive housing track.

Our workforce development team has members at the Charles River Inn four days a week, working on identifying employment opportunities for those seeking work, and helping find sources of income that might be available to those unable to work.

Healthcare for the Homeless, which staffs our clinic at 39 Boylston, has a nurse on-site twelve hours a week. Charles River Health Center came in at the end of January to provide COVID-19 vaccination. To date, about 60% of staff and residents have gotten their first shot.

Overall, residents and staff alike are giving the Charles River Inn experience high marks.

“Within the past decade, funding has been moving away from old-time transitional housing and redirected toward permanent housing. Permanent housing is, of course, the ideal, but we’ve moved away from preparing people for housing,” says Andrea. “The reality on the ground is that many people do benefit from having a stepping-stone to permanent housing. It helps people put their lives together when they don’t have to place 100% of their focus on pure survival. What we have at Charles River Inn is a humane sheltering model. It will be interesting to see what happens moving forward. A successful program like the one we’re running here showcases how transitional housing can and does work.”

We’ve missed having Andrea and Angel around, and will be happy to see them when they return this spring. In the meantime, congratulations on a job well done for the residents of Charles River Inn.