WOONSOCKET — For the last seven years, Senior Pastor Gene Giguere and his fellow members of the Harvest Community Church at 60 North Main Street have been able to follow their Christian faith and help someone in need.
The church has provided shelter to a number of homeless men who might otherwise have spent long, cold nights outdoors during the winter. The church’s second-floor Sanctuary Ministry shelter opens each Nov. 1 and runs until March.
But this year, with the area’s economy still dragging and the state’s unemployment rate still high, Giguere sees a major challenge looming for the church’s effort to provide needed help.
There are more homeless men seeking shelter at Harvest Community Church and that number may exceed the program’s ability to house them overnight, according to Giguere.
“Last year during the first three weeks of November we had about 110 bed nights,” Giguere said this week. “It’s over 330 bed nights this year and it is exactly triple the number we had last year,” he said.
The number of men seeking help is close to the limit the program can help and the traditional busy season for the shelter, after the holidays, is still ahead, he said.
“We expect this year that we will have to turn away people and that would be the first time that has happened,” Giguere said.
The shelter has state approval to house 38 people overnight but due to operational concerns, Giguere would want to keep that number to about 30 on any given night.
Anyone that could not be housed would be referred to the Crossroads Rhode Island homeless shelter in Providence, a place some of the local program’s participants might not feel comfortable using due to the potential for physical confrontations and petty crimes such as the theft of personal belongings that exists there.
“It would do injury to our whole idea of being Christian,” Giguere said of the possibility of turning people away. “We feel that it would be an outrage to have to the building we have and know that there are people sleeping outside and we can do nothing about it,” he said.
At Harvest, the church members volunteering with the shelter program, seek to provide the shelter’s overnight residents with a “safe, warm place to sleep,” while also giving them an opportunity to find some hope through religious belief. “Hope is in short supply for some of these guys,” Giguere said.
The Harvest Community Church program got is start when an increase in the number of families showing up at the Woonsocket Community Action Shelter on Sayles Street forced Family Resources, its operating agency, to drop men from the program.
Church members initially provided the donations needed to run the shelter through the winter and eventually, Ben Lessing, the executive director of
Family Resources, was able to help by applying for some grant funding for costs such as paying a night watchman, shelter floor mats and other operating supplies. The men sleep on the second floor, upstairs from the street level church.
The program has a proven list of rules intended to prevent problems between the men staying there and give them a role in its operation. Giguere asks that those coming to stay the night have respect for each out and also be ready to help out with chores.
The shelter opens at 7:30 and those showing up at the shelter door cannot have been drinking beforehand, Giguere notes. If someone does show up intoxicated, they are not allowed to stay, Giguere said. The “dry shelter” approach allows its occupants to settle in quickly and have a quiet night, he said. The shelter closes at 7 a.m. and before it does the men all must help out with its breakdown and cleaning.
The local program does provide its regular clients with a bin to store their belongings in through the day and the bedding they will need for a night on a shelter floor mat.
It also seeks to connect the homeless men with social service programs that can assist them in either finding work or a permanent place to stay.
There have been success stories where someone who came to the shelter homeless found a job in the city and eventually obtained an apartment, Giguere said. The shelter’s one nighttime employee was one those coming to the shelter for help and now also holds a separate job during the summer months, Giguere said. Another former client was able to find a job with the city and also obtained a home, he said.
The current state of the economy, however, isn’t helping Harvest Community Church add to that list.
“I read an article saying that the number of homeless people in Rhode Island has completely spiked,” Giguere said. The downturn has caused people to lose jobs and in turn lose their homes. And once someone is homeless, Giguere said it is hard to breakout of that typecast.
“When someone comes in right after becoming homeless, he looks like you or me,” Giguere said. “But within a week or so he starts to look homeless,” he said.
The look comes from the despair of not being able to put a roof over your head and not being able to have the simple personal necessities such a place to wash, or proper clothing, Giguere said.
In the past year, Harvest has been able to add a place downstairs for the men to get a shower every couple of days and that is an improvement over the prior arrangement with the YMCA allowing them a shower once a week.
Getting the men jobs or something to do with their time is not as easily solved.
“People are just flat out everywhere and the job situation in Woonsocket is just dismal,” Giguere said.
When they leave in the morning the men are pretty much on the street with the exception of stopping at the Because He Lives soup kitchen run by Pat Dempster at the First Baptist Church on Blackstone Street for a noontime meal.
The time they spend outside has Giguere looking for help in finding the men warm socks, gloves, winter jackets and even boots. “If anyone wants to drop off a warm coat, we can find a use for it, I will guarantee,” he said.
Giving the men a warm place to sleep is the primary mission of the shelter, and Giguere knows that many of the people staying with him would be at risk for sleeping outside somewhere in the city without it.
He also believes there is a time to provide that help and a time when the men need to find a place to stay when the weather improves.
“We are always working with them to help find a way out of their situation, but we also don’t want to enable people to follow a course in life that hurts them,” he said. For that reason, the Harvest emergency shelter always has its date of closing in the spring.
This year, the period of respite the shelter will provide its overnighters could be a missed opportunity for some, according to Giguere.
“We are seeing more homeless men than we have ever seen and with what’s happening now it seems like there aren’t many options for them,” he said.