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A Safe Refuge on Winter Nights

Harvest Community Church houses those sidelined by recession blues.

A handful of men will spend tonight camping in the woods around Woonsocket, or perhaps shivering somewhere in the city's abandoned industrial infrastructure.

They might chose to endure the winter cold because some inner demon makes them uncomfortable near other people, or perhaps because they refuse to put aside a bottle for warmth and safety.

But there is a roof for most the city's homeless men. At 7:30 p.m. a bearded, white-haired man will open a side door at Main Street's , and tell perhaps two dozen men in the parking lot they're welcome to come in. The group will climb the stairs to an upstairs hall, where they'll find a comfortable matt, an evening meal, and a friend willing to listen.

By day the hall is an activity room for the church's youth ministry, but by night, it's their home. "Sanctuary" -- that's the official name -- is the only winter shelter for men in the city, and one of the few in Rhode Island outside Providence.

Church ministers and members, as well as some outside volunteers, have kept the seasonal operation running for the past nine years. The doors open at the end of October and close at the end of March, unless winter weather lingers beyond that date.

"Our volunteers are here because their love for God has taught them to love other people," said Gene Giguere, the pastor of the non-denominational, evangelical church. "We're not doing this to be humanitarian. We're doing this because we're Christian. Jesus told us to take care of the poor. I usually explain it by quoting St. Francis of Assisi. He said, preach the Gospel wherever you go, and if you have to, use words."

That quote also describes Giguere. He's always ready to talk, but prefers action. A native of Woonsocket and Blackstone, he spent several years working as a missionary in the Balkan Peninsula when that region was struggling to recover from war and economic unrest. He and his family returned to Woonsocket in 2002 and launched Harvest Community Church, now located in a former retail building at 60 North Main.

As an urban minister he's witnessed firsthand the effects of drug and alcohol addiction, and he's ready to argue that's not the reason most homeless people are on the street. Instead, he points to the state's economy: Rhode Island's jobless rate now tops 10.5 percent, nearly two points higher than the nation's.

"You can't take words like 'lazy' and stick them on every guy who ends up sleeping at a shelter," he said. "For a lot of them, it's lack of opportunity. There are many people in this city who are just a pink slip away from becoming homeless."

For that reason, he also worries that this winter the shelter may have to turn some away. That state has authorized the church to house just 38 overnight guests. By mid-December, the shelter was taking in about two dozen men each night. "Usually we don't reach numbers like that until after January," Giguere said.

Woonsocket has another shelter for women and children, a facility on Sayles Street run by , a local social services agency. At one point, that building had a separate area for men, but a decade ago overcrowding became a concern, and the agency put out the call to another organization to take on some of the burden.

About the same time, three strange faces showed up for Sunday morning services at Harvest Community Church.  Giguere recalls that when the service ended, he approached the newcomers to introduce himself. "I asked, where are you from?" he recalled. "One of them replied, to tell you the truth, we're homeless."

Not long after, the weather turned unseasonably cold. "I told myself, God brought three homeless men to our church," he said. "I thought, my dog is living better, we should be doing something. My associate pastor, Steve Bacon, had heard of a spot in town where homeless people camped out. We headed there, and sure enough, we found those three guys."

The next day, one of the men led Giguere and Bacon to a dozen outdoor locations where homeless people sometimes camp. Determined to offer help, the two went to the Woonsocket soup kitchen operated by the and announced that homeless men could stay at Harvest Community Church.

Giguere recalled that some in the city disapproved of their actions. Shortly after the church opened the shelter, then-mayor Susan Menard attempted to shut down the operation. Her argument: the church did not have an occupancy permit.

Giguere contacted a lawyer with experience defending churches in civil liberties cases. At the same time, news reporters got wind of the conflict.

"Our church is meant to minister to the poor, and we told her that government is not to interfere with how we run our church," he says today.

 "We were ready to go to court, but she backed down when the public started speaking out. Later she ended up describing Harvest Community as a model church. I look at the whole thing as growing pains today."

The pastor is also quick to note the current City Hall administration is supportive of the shelter. "Mayor Leo Fontaine is very sympathetic to the problems of the poor," he said.

In the early days, all donations came from church members, who also ran the facility as volunteers. Later, however, the church applied for grants, with help from the staff at Family Resources. Five years ago that allowed them to hire a night manager, Charles Britto, who's on the job six nights a week.

"Charles runs a tight ship," said Giguere of Britto, a soft-spoken man with a patient manner. "He can be tough when he has to be, but he really cares about these guys. He's the perfect man for the job because he empathizes with them. He doesn't treat them different than anyone else, because they're not."

"I started out as one of the guys sleeping on the floor," Britto explained. "I'd lost a job at a mill. Then I lost unemployment benefits."

Britto also acts as gatekeeper. Those who walk through the door are expected to behave, and they do, according to Giguere.

"Since the day we opened, we've only tossed out three people for causing trouble," he said. "That's what makes us different from big city shelters. We have no fights, no thefts, no bedbugs, and no people getting stabbed.

"The number one rule here is 'respect,' a very simple Christian virtue. We tell everyone who comes here, respect yourself, respect the staff, and respect your neighbor. That's the guy next to you. If someone's disrespectful, they get one warning."

Britto and the volunteer staff have one rule they never bend: No one comes in while under the influence. Those too intoxicated to travel are sent to a hospital emergency room. Others get a RIPTA bus pass so they can head to a large shelter in Providence run by the Crossroads agency. It's open to anyone who walks through the doors.

"If we admit one guy who's drunk, he can keep everyone here from getting a night's sleep," Giguere explained. "When some of these guys hear that getting drunk means choosing the Providence shelter, sometimes that works better than rehab."

The pastor says he applauds the work done by Crossroads and other agencies that operate big city shelters, but he points out that large institutions that are open to all — even known troublemakers or those who are intoxicated — are seen by many as a last resort.

At this point, the church has no plans to keep the Woonsocket shelter open year round. "There's a Biblical reason," Giguere said. "We don't want to enable them to be doing something wrong, though I do think that's the minority. Either way, in winter months all bets are off, it's a matter of survival. The other reason is practical. By the end of the season, we're tired out."

They do hope to expand their mission by teaming up with other churches and social service agencies to open a "transition house," a home for nine men who are working to get back on their feet. There are also plans to renovate the church basement so the shelter can be moved to that level.

In the meantime, most nights are routine. As each guest arrives, he receives a plastic bin for his belongings, a comfortable matt, and bedding. The men may spend some time watching TV or playing cards before the lights go out. There's also a light meal, perhaps lasagna cooked up by a volunteer, or canned soup and sandwiches.

Before they leave in the morning, the men share some clean-up chores, such as washing the floors and cleaning the bathrooms. A few might stick around to help with some bigger jobs.

It's certainly no frills, but it beats the alternatives. "It's safe here," says Britto. "It's clean."

Volunteers, by the way, are always welcome to help out, though only men are allowed inside the shelter. Those interested are invited to stop by the North Main Street church.

la_mouffette December 28, 2011 at 08:18 PM
Really wonderful to read this. Our city really needs it!
Bob Coderre December 29, 2011 at 02:30 AM
Great job Harvest Community Church!

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