WOONSOCKET – When it comes to ministering to the homeless, Associate Pastor Steve Bacon is a hands-on kind of guy.
In the basement of Harvest Community Church, he’s got his hands on table saws, nail guns, chop saws and other power tools as the region’s only emergency shelter for homeless men undergoes a major makeover.
A medley of grants and charitable contributions helped pay for the project, including $130,000 from the Champlin Foundations, one of the state’s largest philanthropic organizations. But when it comes to elbow grease and technical expertise, Bacon is pretty much it.
“Some of our homeless men have helped with painting and other chores,” says Bacon. “They know this is where they’re going to be sleeping this winter.”
Housed in a 152-year-old, red-brick building located at 62 North Main St., Harvest Community Church will mark the emergency shelter’s ninth year in operation this fall. Some two dozen men sleep on rubberized, bug-proof mats on the floor every night between November and April. They’re allowed in at 7:30 p.m. and must leave in the morning, at which point they often seek refuge in the public library or nearby fast-food restaurants.
Some of the same men who have been living in makeshift tent villages alongside the Blackstone River and other secluded spots during the shirtsleeve months are among the wintertime guests of Harvest’s emergency shelter, says Bacon.
It’s a fragile but critical link in the safety net for a population that is, despite its vulnerability, resistant to more mainstream placements. Family Resources Community Action, the largest provider of emergency shelter in the city, has long maintained a facility on Sayles Street for women and children, but no single men are allowed.
Amid much fanfare, the gap closed a bit roughly a year ago when FRCA opened a nine-bed shelter on Burnside Avenue for men.
“The Burnside Ave. project represents a significant step forward in providing permanent supportive housing for homeless men in Woonsocket,” Ben Lessing, executive director of FRCA said at the ribbon-cutting. Bacon says three longtime shelter clients of Harvest have since taken up residence in the Burnside Avenue facility, but it’s not for everybody. The facility is targeted for clients who already have an income of 40 percent of the area’s median, or about $21,000 a year. Tenants must also agree to any counseling they might need for mental health, substance abuse, job training and other issues.
Often, those benchmarks are too high for shelter clients at Harvest Community Church, according to Bacon.
“They’re the working poor and seasonal workers and obviously we’ve got a group of substance abusers,” says Bacon. “We have a zero tolerance policy for use within the shelter. We just try to encourage these people to seek out a better life.”
“This is probably the final safety net to keep them from freezing to death,” he says.
Since the church established the ministry for the homeless, the shelter population has remained fairly constant, checking in at “a high average” of 28 sleepovers per night.
“We call them our alumni, affectionately...one has definitely been with us from the beginning,” says Bacon. “Three others have transitioned into the new Burnside Avenue facility. A couple of others are no longer with us; they passed away last year.”
Originally founded on Arnold Street over a decade ago, Harvest later moved into the historic Miller’s Block and has been operating the overnight shelter there since 2004, with permission from the city.
For all of that time, shelter clients have slept in what’s been called the Sanctuary Ministry – on the second floor. Three years ago, according to Bacon, the Champlin Foundations began providing grants to convert the basement into a fully-functional, self-contained shelter. A number of donations have come in from other churches and local nonprofits, including NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, to underwrite the cost of the project.
The work is now about 70 percent complete, and Bacon says the church hopes to unveil the finished product by mid-October.
When it’s done, the 4,000-square-foot space will be completely remodeled, with new, freshly painted drywall. There will be a small kitchenette for making coffee and reheating meals brought in from outside soup kitchens, and new high-efficiency washers and dryers where clients will have their clothes laundered regularly by staff, including a full-time security guard.
The new digs will also have a large compartment where wintertime guests can store their belongings – typically a few bits of clothing and items of personal hygiene – in a large plastic storage bin. One bin is assigned to each client. The church also allows shelter guests to use 60 North Main St. as their mailing address for the winter, which can be quite a perk for someone trying to move beyond homelessness.
Though Harvest has received plenty of outside help in making the structural improvements, Bacon says corralling the resources to run the shelter is actually a never-ending process. Many churches, near and far, have made donations to a “mat sponsorship” program to help defray the cost of putting up the homeless.
A story about the city’s boom-and-bust economy built on food stamps, published several months ago by the Wall Street Journal, prompted one of the more memorable examples. Since the article appeared, the Crossroads Community Church of Longview, Texas, has provided Harvest with four months’ worth of mat sponsorships, at $250 a month.
Harvest, which sees about 130 worshipers during a typical Sunday service, is an offshoot of a Providence-based ministry where Bacon used to work with Harvest Pastor Gene Giguere. Bacon says Giguere is the leading spiritual voice of the church, while he, Bacon, spends most of his time seeing to upkeep and maintenance of the facility.
The 52-year-old Cumberland native worked with his father in the construction business for many years before he found a new career with Harvest.
He says he hopes his latest efforts mark a new beginning for the church’s shelter ministry, moving it not just to a new place within the church but forward, into a future of expanded services that helps clients lead more stable lives.
“In time we hope that with this new space we might be able to do something like that,” he says. “This gives us a better opportunity to perhaps do more somewhere down the road.”