Upham's Corner Online

Pilgrim Shelter - Is it a Good Neighbor in Upham's Corner?

Posted: January 23, 2011     Nancy J Conrad

In late 2011 the Upham's Corner Improvement Association (UCIA) discussed the condition of the St. Kevin’s property - trash, the homeless living there and the property being used as an outhouse. Two members tried unsuccessully on separate occasions to report incidents at the Pilgrim Shelter next door but were rebuffed. 

What happened?  How did the shelter management respond?  Are there any ongoing issues that are having a detrimental effect on Upham’s Corner?  Are there ways that the shelter management can improve its day-to-day operation to lessen problems?

Pilgrim Shelter is located in what used to be the main sanctuary of the Pilgrim Church at 540 Columbia Rd. Ed D’Amato, Chief Financial Officer at Children's Services of Roxbury (CSR) said, yes, they do have the state contract to manage the Pilgrim Shelter.  Pilgrim Church rents the space to CSR but does not have any direct management responsibility. 

Johnny Hudson, housing manager for CSR, describes the shelter's role as "providing a safety net for people who are literally dying,"  adding that the shelter has been in operation for over 16 years. 

Pilgrim Shelter is open from 3:30 in the afternoon until 730 in the morning with what he says is a staff of 7 to 10 people.  Vans arrive in the evening to drop off people and in the morning they take them back downtown to a day program or over to the Boston City Hospital for programs there. 

Not everybody opts to ride back in a van.  Some leave the shelter and find their own way wherever they’re going.

Since the St. Kevin’s school at 515 Columbia Rd closed several years back, the school property (adjacent to the shelter) has attracted the homeless.  According to Fr. Jack Ahern who is responsible for St. Kevin’s, people are breaking into the church, throwing trash behind the buildings and using the hidden recesses of the building as an outhouse.  The break-ins, he said, have been increasing since the cold weather arrived in October.  

An area resident said she walks through St. Kevin’s regularly and sees men urinating there.  Recently she observed a guy leave the shelter, walk straight over to St. Kevin’s and proceed to urinate there. She asked him: "Why are you doing this?  Can’t you take care of yourself before you leave the shelter?"  Apparently, he paid no attention and finished urinating with an attitude that said "try me."  

The resident went over to the shelter to talk with the staff about what happened but they didn’t seem interested.  The next evening another resident went over to the shelter and asked for contact information. The staff member seemed reluctant to cooperate.  He gave her two phone numbers on a piece of scrap paper but refused to provide the name of the shelter supervisor and the address where a letter could be sent.

The next morning the resident called both numbers.  One didn’t answer.  The other was Children’s Services of Roxbury (CSR).  "What," asked the resident, "does that have to do with the Pilgrim Shelter?"

"I apologize for that," Mr. Hudson said after hearing about what happened.  "Those are the guys when they go out the door we don't know what they're doing in the neighborhood until we hear from someone like yourself."

And he wanted to know the facts of both situations:  who, when, where, what was said, descriptions of people involved.  He seemed to be well attuned to the need to attentively gather the facts so he could address the specific issue and get it resolved. To use a simple analogy, you don’t replace the whole bridge because a bolt breaks. Mr. Hudson likes fixing broken bolts.

He added:  "We want to be good neighbors.  From time to time there might be an issue with a particular guy who was staying at the shelter or who didn't get into the shelter. I'm trying to get a sense of what happened so I can put a perspective on it.  Everybody is not a bad person.  There might be a couple people who are deviating and that's where we try to work together advocating for the community. As far as St. Kevin’s is concerned, we’d be happy to meet with the priest about what is happening.

Could I share are little something?  The director of the shelter attends the neighborhood meetings and that usually involves the police and the residents of that area. That’s how we stay close to any issues that might be occurring."

During the conversation UC News attempted to discuss broader issues related to the shelter but Mr. Hudson was strictly focused on resolving specific complaints. 

  • What happens to the homeless if there is no room in the shelter?
  • Shelter staff relationship with the community
  • Reporting problems and problem escalation
  • Impact of shelter clients on the Upham’s corner community

On December 13, 2011, the Improvement Association sent Children's Services a letter detailing what happened and emphasizing broader issues regarding shelter management .   Johnny Hudson acknowledged receiving the letter. 

"CSR will definitely look into the concerns you have raised.  Please know that the Pilgrim Adult Shelter has always, and will continue to address the concerns of its neighbors.  Thanks for bringing these latest concerns to my attention." 

According to UCIA there has been no further contact from Children's Services.

It’s almost 3:30 and staff are inside preparing.  Some clients arrive by foot, turning the corner, and walking diagonally across the parking lot to the door.  Some arrive by van, entering the shelter as a group.  Inside you would be amazed at the sleeping conditions. Several hundred beds (temporary cots) are set up daily so close to each other that you can’t walk between. 

Because the responsibilities of the staff are primarily inside the building, what happens outside is more difficult to know and to control.  So a little bit of litter, a little bit of noise, a few people turned away who then sleep under the stars at St. Kevin’s ( in warmer months) - all of this is outside the purview of Chldren’s Services of Roxbury’s contract with the Commonwealth. 

What does the community know about the business?  From the outside, almost nothing.  All we see is the Pilgrim Church with an open parking lot on the left side.  Occasionally a few vehicles are parked in the lot and in the afternoon, vans arrive delivering people. 

Later groups of men assemble outside (weather permitting), talking and smoking.  Hmm.  What’s going on here?  Is this a party?  A special event?  Is it a church function?  There are no signs and no clues as to what is taking place there.

Pilgrim Shelter is a business - a social services business providing temporary housing and food for men who need it, a place where the homeless (males) can go and know they will be warm and safe. 

The Pilgrim Shelter is more than the inside of a building where the homeless get food and housing. 
  • It's a whole bunch of vans turning into the parking lot and dropping people off.  
  • It's people getting off the bus and walking over to the shelter hoping to get in and on occasion not being able to get in and being turned away. 
  • It's also people in the morning, some of whom are driven out of Upham's Corner in the van and some who prefer to walk out and hang out in Upham's Corner for a while.
Pilgrim Shelter is a magnet, attracting people into the neighborhood who would not be coming here were there no shelter.  Travel three streets down in any direction and will not find people sleeping in backyards or openly urinating on the property.  The reason is because there is no homeless shelter on those streets.

Pilgrim Shelter is a mecca for homeless men.  It is a center for obtaining services that keep them alive - food and shelter. However, until a homeless man is allowed into the shelter, he is a homeless man external to the shelter.  If he is not granted a bed, or if he is removed from the shelter for cause, then he is back out on the streets of Upham's Corner without a place to stay.

The shelter clientele drawn to Upham's Corner have an impact on the community.  We are all familiar with homeless men who:
  • Ask for money
  • Ask for a place to stay
  • Sleep in the open at St.Kevin's
  • Use the alleys and entryways as public outhouses
While this behavior can take place anywhere, it has a higher likelihood in Upham's Corner because a shelter exists here. 

Having a homeless shelter in Upham’s Corner provides pluses and minuses.  On the plus side, the Pilgrim Church receives rental income and participates in providing a safety net for people who desperately need shelter.  On the minus side, Upham's Corner is the recipient of more traffic, air pollution, litter, noise and unacceptable behavior along one of the main corridors of the business district.

The following recommendations are based on analysis and conversations with members of the community especially the Improvement Association.

1. Rapport with the Community

What steps is the Pilgrim Shelter taking to build rapport with the Upham's Corner community and ameliorate the effects it has on our neighborhoods? 

While Johnny Hudson stated:  "We want to be good neighbors, " we see no indication that his organization is taking any steps to build a meaningful relationship with the community and provide a forum for conversation about issues, ideas and suggestions. 

While Johnny stated and believed that the Shelter Director attends neighborhood association meetings, we can assure him that no one attends from the shelter.  Staff used to attend but that stopped a long time ago.

2. Performance Report Card

Mr. Hudson tried to convey a friendly attitude: "Any issues? Don’t hesitate to let us know." The door is always open; just knock.  That sounds good but in reality unless the shelter is also proactively maintaining a communications channel that promotes community conversation, the shelter is just shifting responsibility for "problem identification" over to the neighbors.

It would be better for everyone involved if the shelter puts in place a self-regulated monitoring and reporting mechanism (a report card) that can be shared with the community.  How are we doing?  Are there any issues outstanding?

3. Contact Information

The shelter must provide a mechanism for problem reporting and problem escalation.  The demonstrated inability for shelter staff to provide basic contact information in a professional way on two occasions is a clear indication that something is amiss.

How about a (small) external sign:  Name of shelter, contact organization, phone number, hours of operation. 

4. Be a Good Neighbor

To use Mr. Hudson's own words, the Pilgrim Shelter must see itself as a member of a community, not an isolated business or social services organization.  What impact are we having on the Upham's Corner community?  How have we made a positive difference in the community today - not just in the lives of the homeless men?

5. Continue the Conversation

Plan to engage in regular open dialog - Pilgrim Shelter staff and the community.
  • If the shelter were not there, what would change in Upham's Corner? (traffic, litter, noise, etc)How can clients be encouraged to leave the shelter by van and not by foot?
  • If a client is turned away, how can the shelter make sure that the "community" does not become the default shelter?
  • How can we open the lines of communication with the community?
  • As an Upham's Corner business, how can we make sure that our interface with the community is pleasant and professional?
Pilgrim Shelter
Pilgrim Church parking lot as seen
from Columbia Road
Pilgrim Shelter
The entrance to the shelter is in the
back corner of the parking lot.
Pilgrim Shelter
Closeup of the shelter entry door
Pilgrim Shelter
Upham’s Corner Improvement Association
December 13, 2011
Re: Negative Impact of Pilgrim Shelter on Neighborhood
An area resident has observed Pilgrim Shelter residents leaving the parking lot and  heading straight over to the St. Kevin’ property.  She has watched them proceed to “hang out” or to “relieve” themselves.  

To one large man urinating in public, she said:  “Why are you doing this?  Can’t you take care of yourself before you leave the shelter?”  He ignored her and said nothing.  She went over to the shelter and told “management” about the incident but they did not appear to be interested.

Another area resident went over to the shelter the next night and asked for the name and address of the director of the shelter saying they wanted to write a letter.  He was only willing to give out two phone numbers, one of which was for the Children’ Services of Roxbury.  The conversation escalated and he responded by saying:  “Get your fingers out of my face.”

The shelter appears not to have any pre-printed contact information.  The shelter employee had to look for a scrap piece of paper to write down the phone numbers.  This does not leave an impression that this shelter is a professionally run social services organization.

We spoke with Fr. Ahern about the fact that the homeless are sleeping inside the old St. Kevin’s school.  He said they break into the building repeatedly.  Apparently, since the weather has turned cold, they are looking for somewhere to sleep other than “under the stars.”  They come to the Pilgrim Shelter and are turned away.  Fr. Ahern said that when the shelter existed at Holy Family, they had rules they followed to make sure the homeless were managed properly – both inside and outside the shelter.

Fr. Ahern raised two issues:
  1. What happens to the homeless if there are not enough beds at Pilgrim and they are turned away?
  2. Where do the residents go in the morning?  Do they stay in Upham’s Corner and hang out?
Fr. Ahern’s comments are important.  Children’s Services of Roxbury has a contract with the state to create a shelter for homeless men and they apparently manage the interior of the shelter well with few incidents brought to the attention of the police.

But a shelter is like a magnet.  It attracts the homeless to Upham’s Corner.  If there are not sufficient services, then the homeless are left to fend for themselves.  You could say this is the ‘I-don’t-care’ attitude of society in general but leaving the homeless who are looking for shelter to fend for themselves is having an impact on the quality of life in Upham’s Corner and the homeless themselves.  

In the morning, while you cannot force someone to get into a van to be carted off to another day program, letting homeless people stay in Upham’s Corner is not doing either the community or the homeless any good.

The bottom line is this:  The contract that Children’s Services has with the state MUST include active oversight regarding two things:
  1. How the shelter is run
  2. The impact of the shelter on the community
There needs to be accountability to the community, not just to the state, or non-profits or to the church (its landlord).  Mr. Johnny Hudson stated that the shelter regularly attends neighborhood meetings.  We can tell you for sure that it is NOT true.  We understand that the shelter meets with the Pilgrim Church but not with any other neighborhood organization.

Mr. Hudson stated that area residents need to notify (whomever) if any incidents occur.  It’s not that simple.  Who do you notify?  Where are the signs out front indicating who runs the shelter or who the contact person/organization is or even the NAME of the shelter?

We suggest that the Pilgrim Shelter needs to improve its overall professionalism in Upham’s Corner and stop treating our community so poorly.

Please note:  We ask that you not misinterpret the position of the Improvement Association.  We are NOT asking that the shelter leave the church or our community but that it be run more responsibly.

| Copyright © 2010-2014 Uphams Corner News - All Rights Reserved |