St. Francis House

Just down the street from Emerson College is a place with services that can change a person’s life. Students often walk by the building, but may hardly acknowledge it. The banners outside the facility and the individuals who linger around the entrance are its only visible identifiers. However, once inside St. Francis House, the dedication to helping the poor and homeless members of the downtown Boston community becomes apparent. 

Founded in 1984, St. Francis House is a nonprofit day shelter at 39 Boylston Street committed to assisting the 500 homeless men and women who visit the facility daily. Ashley Medlar, the volunteer services coordinator at St. Francis, says that what lead so many people to this situation is a lack of affordable housing and, in many cases, mental illness, substance abuse and addiction, and other challenges that prevent individuals from maintaining a steady job and income with which they can afford housing. 

Much like Emerson, St. Francis House is a community intent on including all those who may need the services it provides with around 80 staff members and 40 volunteers making sure it is fully operational. “Our guests in particular are really all over the map in terms of demographics,” says Medlar, “We consider ourselves to be a really low threshold environment with no real rules of who can or can’t come to St. Francis House.” The building is divided into three specialized sections that allow guests of many ages spanning from age 18 to 75, and of several nationalities, to find the resources they need to “rebuild their lives.”

The first four floors (including the mezzanine) comprise the day shelter. The first floor of the building is where the kitchen and dining room are. It’s run mostly by volunteers who serve about 650 meals per day, according to Medlar. “Our food’s pretty good, by the way,” she adds. The atrium is also on the first floor, providing sitting room for guests needing protection from the elements, and a mail room where guests can establish a local address and pick up their correspondence. 

The mezzanine is where the resource center is located—there you’ll find more sitting space and entertaining, but productive, activities like “Healthy Me Bingo” happening. There is also a classroom where meetings for groups like book club, pastoral counseling, and chorus are held. More amenities on this floor include phones, a computer lab, a library, and an art studio where art therapy takes place (in fact, most if not all of the artwork around the building was created by guests). 

On the second floor, “guests can make appointments to receive clothes up to once a week”, says Medlar, with showers located on this level as well. The medical clinic is also on the second floor; Medlar says, “By having a medical clinic in here, if someone’s hurt or sick we can say ‘Go to the second floor’ instead of ‘Go down to Tufts’, because the further away you try to send people, the less likely it is that they’re actually going to get there.” Finally, although there are women-only shelters in the city, the Women’s Center at St. Francis House is also available on the second floor to provide for female-specific needs and give sanctuary to women who face harassment and assault on the streets. 

The third and final floor of the day shelter section of St. Francis House is where mental health counselors and case managers both short and long-term (depending on what a particular guest’s circumstances are and how they’d like to proceed) are located. This is arguably a crucial step for many guests so that they find solutions not just for their external obstacles, but also for the conflicts they deal with internally. All these resources are located so closely together with the hope that guests will be more inclined to utilize them.

The fourth and fifth floors are where the 150 students enrolled annually go through a rehabilitative vocational program called the Moving Ahead Program (MAP), which prepares them to “find and maintain employment.” Through word of mouth or information provided by St. Francis House staff members, individuals apply for the the 14-week program where they do much self-reflection, build up their individual skills, create résumés, and fill out applications in order to secure a job by graduation. This past year, by graduation day, 91 percent of MAP students have secured employment. With staff members of St. Francis House following up every few months, it was shown that by the last check in, 75 percent of students had maintained employment at that original job. The program also provides support to alumni should they need help finding another job or simply some moral support.

Finally, the seventh through tenth floors provide 56 subsidized units of affordable housing for adults who were once homeless, paying about one-third of their income in rent. Much like a college dorm, the floors contain individual rooms with a shared living room and kitchen. Case managers, much like Resident Assistants (RAs), are there to provide support to residents. And while some can use the units as a temporary form of housing before finding someplace else to live, most appreciate the stability and choose to make St. Francis House their permanent home. 

“We have a lot of college students volunteer with us,” says Medlar, who runs new volunteer orientations every two weeks for those interested. Mostly, volunteers are involved in the kitchen and clothing department. You can either volunteer solo, with a group of friends, or go as a club. Or, you can donate clothing or money. However, if you don’t have the time, the stuff, or the money, Medlar says your voice is the most influential force of all. By spreading the word about the existence of St. Francis House and their services, you’re giving a voice to every individual being served there and acknowledging their humanity and dignity as people. 

For more information on St. Francis House and how you can get involved, visit their website at St. Francis House is open from 6:30 am - 3pm daily.  

Photo by: Monika Davis