Concord homeless shelter badly in need of volunteers at busiest time of the year

  • Robert and Lois Potter wait for the Emergency Winter Shelter on North Main Street to on the night of Jan. 14. The Concord shelter is in need of volunteers to help out during the busy season.

  • Robert Potter brings over his bedding for the night at Concord’s Emergency Winter Shelter as volunteer Allie Caswell (center) helps out his wife, Lois, with her blankets in pillows on Jan. 14. Caswell says the shelter is having trouble finding volunteers this season. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Emergency Winter Shelter volunteer Allie Caswell (center) helps out with clients getting their bedding on Tuesday, January 14, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/21/2020 4:46:54 PM

Some of them have long histories of struggles with mental health or addiction. Others became homeless after losing a job, or losing their home to a fire, or when a landlord decided to sell. A few have sought refuge in Concord’s Emergency Winter Shelter after escaping unhealthy relationships.

Everyone Allie and Michael Caswell meet while working at the shelter has a story.

“The more you meet people in that situation, the more you realize it’s a lot of people who are just down on their luck,” said Michael Caswell, the shelter’s manager.

The Concord Coalition to End Homelessness’ emergency winter shelter, which opened in the 2018/19 season, allows 40 adults in need a place to sleep at night away from the cold.

The shelter is a “low-barrier” shelter, meaning even those with active addictions and felony convictions can sleep there during cold winter months. Guests are welcome to stay in shelter bunk beds from 6:30 p.m. to 7 a.m.

However, keeping the shelter running is a big job and Michael and Allie, the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, can’t do it without help.

Volunteers are critical to shelter operations. They help to check guests in, stay overnight, clean and take care of laundry and other organizational tasks.

But this year, Michael and Allie said they’ve been having trouble finding people who want to volunteer their time. Out of 650 open slots for volunteer work, 280 are unfilled for the season, which ends at the end of March.

The deficit is coming just as they are at capacity for guests, Allie said.

“We are so grateful for everyone who chooses to spend their time volunteering at the shelter with us – we couldn’t do what we do without them,” Allie said. “We just need a lot more of them – and as quickly as possible.”

The Caswells said volunteering can be a life-changing experience for both the guests at the shelter, and for volunteers, too.

“You are mostly working directly with the guests, as you’re helping them get their bedding, you’re talking, you’re interacting,” she said. “Sometimes, it ends up being mostly a social hour. A lot of them like to talk to people who have lived different lives— it gives you a chance to learn about people you might not have ever met otherwise.”

Michael Caswell, who started as a Coalition volunteer before becoming manager of the shelter, said his work has helped change some of his own perceptions of what a person experiencing homelessness looks like. For example, 25 to 30% of the people who stay there have jobs, he said.

“My expectation, as you hear through society, was that, ‘Nobody works, they just need to go find a job to fix their situation and finding a job is easy,’ ” he said. “It’s expensive to live in Concord, as it is much of New Hampshire and we don’t have much affordable housing.”

Allie said there is one man who works in Boston and gets back around 2 a.m. to sleep for a few hours before having to start the day again.

“These individuals come from a lot of different situations, and many of them are working hard to get their lives on track,” Allie said.

The shelter has been in a period of transition this last year as it went from being run by Thrive Outdoors to being run by Michael, who was hired to join the Coalition staff. Michael said in its second season, the shelter is running on “better policies and communication” than it did during year one.

For one, lights out is earlier – it used to be 10 p.m. – now it’s 9 p.m. Also, instead of having seven-minute smoke breaks every 45 minutes or so after they check in, guests are able to be outside whenever they need until 8:30 p.m. This allows guests more freedom and allows for a generally calmer atmosphere, Michael Caswell said.

He said the shelter has been open for more than a month and they’ve had no fighting or issues with police or fire.

The Caswells are seeking to fill three main shifts for those who want to volunteer. People who volunteer the evening shift, from 6:15 to 9 p.m. help check-in guests, put guests’ belongings in bins, assign beds and are a second set of eyes and ears for the shift leaders.

In addition to Michael, there are four paid employees at the shelter, shift leaders, who stay every night to assist guests. The twenty or more hours that Allie puts in at the shelter are all volunteer hours.

Those who volunteer during the overnight shift, from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., help to supervise or assist if there is any kind of emergency. They are be provided a cot in the office to sleep in.

Allie and Michael said they have the most difficulty finding volunteers to work overnight shifts, particularly during weekends.

During morning shifts, from 6 to 7:30 a.m., volunteers assist with waking guests, returning their belongings to them and cleaning up around the shelter.

There are other opportunities to help out at the shelter after the guests leave, the Caswells said. Between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Monday through Friday volunteers are needed to help with the on-site laundry and clean the shelter.

The Caswells said spending time at the shelter has afforded them both a lot of personal growth.

“A lot of people are scared the homeless in Concord and that’s really unfortunate because I’ve met some absolutely amazing people,” Allie said. “If they would take the time to listen, people would understand that the homeless are not people to be scared of – not at all.”

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