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Worcester church to host emergency shelter; city says it will address neighbors' concerns

December 2022

Read the original article by Marco Cartolano at Telegram & Gazette


WORCESTER — Blessed Sacrament Church's Phelan Center on Pleasant Street is set to serve as an emergency winter shelter for the homeless population, and the city said it will work with neighbors to maintain quality of life after hearing complaints at a Sunday meeting.

The church at 551 Pleasant St. agreed to serve as a shelter after the city searched for a replacement for Hotel Grace, which lost its home when Ascension Church on Vernon Street was sold this past spring.

City Manager Eric D. Batista said Net of Compassion, the agency that operates Hotel Grace, was undergoing "turnover" that also prevented it from managing a shelter.

Open Sky Community Services will operate Blessed Sacrament shelter that is set to open Dec. 19, and remain open until March 31.

"As of March 31, the hope and the goal is to ensure that we work with all of those individuals in the shelter to provide them housing options in the city," Batista said.

The 60-bed shelter will be open 24/7 and will have security staff on-site at all times, Batista said, by a firm called Jet Security.

Lorie Martiska, a spokesperson for Open Sky Community Services, said daytime hours will focus on engaging guests with services to help them become more stable. She said case management, housing navigation, behavioral health, medical resources, substance use disorder and career readiness services will be provided.

"In addition to the obvious need to provide a warm, dry bed, food and shelter, we also hope to engage people around activities that will contribute to their long-term stability," Martiska said. "We have a history of success in helping people through 'housing first' principles to become stably housed and maintaining that housing." 

In addition, it will be a "wet shelter" where residents will not be required to be sober for entry. Batista said that drug or alcohol use will not be allowed on the premises.

Martiska said congregating outside of the shelter will not be permitted and scheduled smoking breaks will be supervised by staff. 

In line with the biblical scriptures

Rev. Thomas Landry, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church, said that granting use of the space felt in line with the biblical scriptures.

"It's the Gospel that says you help provide shelter to those who are without," Landry said. "Within that setting the hungry will be fed."

Landry said he is hopeful that services available through the shelter may help open up possibilities for those who use the facility.

Complaints, fears from residents and businesses

During an open meeting for the nearby community Sunday, the city and shelter operators heard complaints from a group of neighboring residents and business owners that the city had not communicated establishing the shelter in a timely manner, and fears over safety and business impacts associated with the shelter.

Batista said residents asked "very good questions" during the Sunday meeting. He said the city will work with the police and the quality-of-life team to ensure safety in the neighborhood.

"The biggest thing for us is we're going to ensure their safety in that neighborhood by having security officers, increase patrolmen in the area," Batista said.

Batista said the plan all came about very quickly and the city wanted to respect Blessed Sacrament going through its council to request that the Phelan Center be used for the shelter. The shelter was confirmed Nov. 28, leaving a short window for communication and setup, Batista said.

"The reason why it's short is because the more we extend this time, the more people are out in our streets in the community. We're not getting services out in the cold," Batista said. "All these variables tend to compound, so we need to move quickly and make sure that we secure a location."

Landry said he understood the frustrations from neighbors about the short time span with which they were made aware of the shelter, but agreed they were in a time crunch. He said he was confident in the level of staffing that will be provided to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the community by Open Sky and the city.

"The proof is in the pudding. The best way of addressing people's concerns is just doing it well," Landry said. "Everybody staying strong in their commitment to the people who need this service and in their commitment to the community."

While Net of Compassion was not ready to operate the shelter when the city was looking at setting it up, Batista said that the organization is stable and continues to be in talks with the city about other potential services such as an overflow shelter.

The city manager added that he is continuing to work on expanding available beds for homeless residents during the winter months.

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