As temperatures fall, shelter is a warm refuge for homeless men

As temperatures fall, shelter is a warm refuge for homeless men

Pastor Steve Bacon of Harvest Community Church surveys the sleeping quarters in the church’s Sanctuary shelter, which opened its doors for the season on Nov. 1. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – The official start of winter might be over a month away, but for Pastor Steve Bacon and the Harvest Community Church, the season began on Nov. 1, when the church’s Sanctuary shelter opened its doors to the city’s homeless community for the first time since spring.

The shelter offers a nighttime residence for Woonsocket’s homeless men from Nov. 1 through March 31, when it closes for the summer months. It first opened in 2002, after a visit from three homeless individuals prompted Bacon and Senior Pastor Gene Giguere to seek out the city’s homeless community. The pair discovered tent camps where men slept exposed to the elements and realized there were limited resources for the city’s homeless men.

“We got some mats donated, we got some things donated, and just opened our doors,” said Bacon. “One guy came. And then another guy came.”

Now in their 16th season, staff at the shelter say the community they serve has grown larger and younger over the years, with about 28 men, including five or six under the age of 30, showing up on an average night. Bacon, the shelter’s director for the past eight years, attributes the change to a lack of affordable housing for the working poor, along with an increase in mental health issues and the ever-present reality of the opioid crisis.

“There’s a lot of that issue,” he said on the topic of opioid addiction. “Even middle-aged guys who that’s the cycle of their life. They use, they go into rehab, they’re back out, they use again.”

As he walks the basement shelter at 10 North Main Street, Bacon shares stories about the men, pointing to the areas where each resident sleeps during the night. One man worked in the mills in Woonsocket before aging out of the workforce. Another came from a broken home and sometimes FaceTimes his mother from the corner. Bacon said he sees the clients as people, but knows a lot of them can feel like numbers out on the streets.

Unlike many shelters, Sanctuary allows residents to store their belongings when they leave during the day. Most residents are regulars, as evidenced by the piles of belongings staking a claim to about 30 sleeping mats scattered around the room: a plastic bag of clothes, a few toiletries, a pair of boots. Some of the men are neat, says Bacon. Some are messy. All have to abide by the shelter’s rules and regulations.

“The men who come here learn that this is kind of a tight-knit group of guys, and they don’t put up with foolishness,” he said.

During the summer, some of the residents travel to shelters in other cities, while others rent apartments with income from seasonal work, but many remain outside in the tent communities that inspired the shelter’s start. The homeless camping community, said Bacon, tries to fly under the radar and keep to the city’s wooded areas along the Blackstone River, but occasionally runs into trouble if residents report them to police. The shelter works closely with Woonsocket Police and city officials to try to keep men off the streets during the winter months, with city employees encouraging men to visit the shelter, where volunteers and staff connect them with resources from Community Care Alliance and Thundermist Health Center.

“We try to show them that there’s another way that maybe they haven’t considered. We’ve seen that with a number of guys. They feel valued,” said Bacon.

As Bacon gives a tour of the newly reopened shelter, Police Chief Thomas Oates pulls up outside the front door to deliver a donation of blankets and coats. Oates echoed Bacon’s words about a police partnership, saying his officers find the shelter especially helpful on bad weather days when they encourage the men they find on the streets to come inside for the night.

“They end up in the parks, and even in the summer, you’re not supposed to be in the parks after dark,” he explained.

Bacon worries that the shelter’s younger residents, those healthy enough to work, may become too dependent on the resources provided, but added that many older residents and those dealing with mental illness have few options to keep them from “falling through the cracks.” Of the 40 single homeless men he estimates live in Woonsocket, 19 stayed at the shelter on its first night of the season last week, with many more expected to visit in the months ahead.

“There are some people who they’re just always going to be homeless. It does break your heart, but it makes you grateful for what you have,” he said.