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A look at Catholic Charities shelter services during COVID-19

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St. Ambrose is much more than a "homeless shelter," and we are committed to community outreach.

Catholic Charities of Boston (CCAB) operates five temporary shelters and supportive residences in Eastern Massachusetts, with the goal of guiding residents on a path to self-sufficiency and independent living. Each shelter serves a specific clientele, including families, young mothers, and emergency shelter for homeless women.

Richard Freitas, director of St. Ambrose Family Shelter in Dorchester, recently shared how his team has been supporting the community during the COVID-19 crisis while maintaining daily operations and preparing for what comes next.

Q: How has shelter life changed since the onset of COVID-19? How are residents adapting and what are the challenges?

A: When COVID-19 began, some families living at St. Ambrose received special passes to leave to stay with family members. We have six families living at the shelter now. They are truly homeless with nobody else to turn to. Having just six families in a large building has made it easy to distance throughout the pandemic.

The pandemic certainly challenges staff and residents. We're preparing for more residents to start moving in, as guidelines allow. Our shelter is designed with shared spaces that all residents use, including shared bathrooms, and cooking and eating areas, so we are unsure how many additional families we will be able to support.

We typically host different programs and skills workshops for residents, so we now have to get creative in developing online programs. It is a challenge, but the programs are important for our residents' success.

Living in a shelter is emotionally taxing on residents. For the past three months, we've had the same six families with us and they've had a lot of space in our building. When new residents begin moving in, the transition to a more crowded building will be challenging. Our ultimate goal is to move residents to independent living. Some of our current residents have been with us for over a year, and they often feel frustrated and stuck at our shelter while they watch other residents move on. Before and during COVID-19, these emotional challenges are something that we continually work through with residents.

Q: In addition to sheltering homeless families and helping them transition to permanent housing, your team does a lot for surrounding neighborhoods. What's that like, specifically during COVID-19?

A: St. Ambrose is much more than a "homeless shelter," and we are committed to community outreach. In our surrounding neighborhoods, we see real poverty. We see individuals who have worked their entire lives and still struggle to make ends meet. They aren't turning to us for shelter, but we help them by working with local organizations to deliver food, personal care items, and other household goods to families who may have lost a source of income. All year long, we receive donated toys and games that we typically give to children around the holidays, but we have been delivering them to children in the area, which families appreciate as schools and parks have been closed.

Q: If people are interested in supporting St. Ambrose Family Shelter, how can they get involved?

A: There is always a need for donations of personal care items, especially as we continue our community outreach services. We have a lot of work to do in poverty-stricken areas around Boston.

We love having volunteers at the shelter. We have outdoor gardens that are blooming up, thanks to volunteers. We're working on new guidelines to bring groups back, like local college students. Volunteers are truly our backbone here.

The need in our communities continues to rise because of COVID-19. We all need to look at how we do our work, how we donate, how we spend our volunteer time, and where we can make a true difference in the community. I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about our work to reach out to me at Richard_Freitas@ccab.org.

JACQUELINE CUNNIFF IS MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AT CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON.



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