WORCESTER – Michelle Lewis was bundled up and huddled in the stairway leading to the basement of St. John’s Church on Temple Street. She was close to front of the line, waiting for the ready-made shelter to open for the overnight rush.
“I was actually in an apartment with no heat for three days before I came here,” Ms. Lewis said. “My cat’s water was frozen.”
With her curly red locks popping out of the bottom of her knitted hat, Ms. Lewis, 49, describes herself as being “chronically homeless” for three years. Becoming disabled made her lose her home 17 years ago, she said, and she has been crashing at other people’s places and in shelters ever since.
“This is the face of today’s homeless,” Ms. Lewis said. “I have an income. I’m trying. If you’re on disability, it’s hard. I just got Section 8 (federal program aiding low-income people for housing). Thank God. And I’m looking for a home.”
So amid the record cold that has gripped Central Massachusetts, bursting water pipes, taxing heating systems and causing headaches for thousands of homeowners, people without homes are dealing with different worries - how to escape the cold and stay safe.
These are the people who seek warmth holding a book in a library and may be pretending to read it, or the middle-aged woman sitting at a coffee shop counter with her hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee, nursing it until her hands have absorbed the heat. People who make city streets their home need safe shelters in the extreme weather. But there are few options and, even still, limited space, in a basement in the oldest Roman Catholic Church in the diocese and a shelter on Queen Street.
The need is much larger than the resources available. According to the city of Worcester in January 2017, there were 1,111 homeless people, including adults, children and youth. They were living in shelters, transitional housing or in places not meant for human habitation. Of this number, 640 were living in shelters, 96 were unsheltered living outside and 375 were in transitional housing. The annual homeless count is planned for the end of the month.
Ms. Lewis said the weather has been brutal and the cold-weather shelter in the church is a blessing to so many of the city’s homeless.
“They say prayers. And they’re so comforting. It’s amazing,” Ms. Lewis said of the shelter. “I just found out about this (Tuesday). I was walking around and somebody told me it was good. I’m so grateful.”
The cold-weather shelter, called Hotel Grace, opens its doors to the homeless when temperatures drop below freezing. The homeless are greeted by pastor Richard “Richie” Gonzalez of Net of Compassion.
“Normally, we open the doors at seven o’clock,” Mr. Gonzales said. “As soon as we set up, I open the doors because I don’t want to keep them freezing out there. In the evening, the temperatures start dropping more. So, six o’clock, 6:15 we have 50 people here, which is our capacity.”
If the church reaches capacity, the Rev. John Madden of St. John’s, said it has an agreement with South Middlesex Opportunity Council shelter on Queen Street to offer transport there. But so far, there hasn’t been too much of an overflow, he said.
While many homeless people wrestle with problems such as addiction and mental illness that then lead to homelessness, Rev. Madden and Mr. Gonzales agree that there are a lot of “regular” people who find themselves without a home in the severe weather.
“So many people are one paycheck away from homelessness,” Rev. Madden added.
Read original article at www.telegram.com.