With Thanksgiving behind us and the holiday season now moving into high gear, reminders of its often commercial focus abound. Whether it be the larger crowds at the stores, the barrage of seasonal commercials on TV, PCs, handheld devices and radio, or the increased weight of catalogs in the mailbox or fliers in the newspaper, it can sometimes be a challenge not to lose sight of the more traditional moral underpinnings of the season. Kudos, then, to Keene’s St. James Episcopal Church for helping to keep the compass pointed in the right direction this season by offering overflow beds for the city’s homeless to the Hundred Nights shelter, and to the City Council for acting quickly to approve the offer.
Hundred Nights has an overflow arrangement with the United Church of Christ on Central Square, which continues to deserve praise for its willingness over the years to open its doors to help meet the demand. Because of other commitments, however, that arrangement will not be available until the new year, and the onset of bone-chilling temperatures earlier this month has already led to near capacity use of the Hundred Nights shelter. That risked leaving some people quite literally out in the cold, and shelter Executive Director Mindy Cambiar expressed concern earlier this month that some would need to be turned away before spots become available at the UCC. Stepping up to address the need to accommodate overflow was St. James, which offered Hundred Nights space to accommodate an additional 12 persons when its 26 beds are occupied. Last week, the council did its part, voting unanimously to forgo its normal process and immediately grant a one-year license to St. James.
As welcome as the arrangement with St. James is — and it is indeed welcome — the increasing need for overflow capacity serves to highlight the need for a more permanent and accommodating home for Hundred Nights, which is currently in leased and cramped space on Lamson Street. Ideally, overflow arrangements should be only for providing shelter for temporary, short-term stays when Hundred Nights is filled. When referring to the UCC overflow arrangement at last week’s discussion of the St. James proposal, however, Ward 4 Councilor Robert B. Sutherland reminded the council of statistics it had seen last year showing that families with young children were requiring sheltering for “longer periods than any of us would hope.”
Hundred Nights’ need for a long-term solution has led it to put forth proposals to relocate to other sites downtown, but those were shot down by the city. Those proposals were burdened by concerns from neighbors and others about the walk-in center that Hundred Nights operates during the day and the appropriateness of that center being located near downtown. Regardless of the merits of those concerns, the fierce opposition has led us to question whether Hundred Nights should consider separately locating its daytime facility so that a centrally located new home for the overnight shelter will be more palatable to those who have opposed past proposals.
For now, the immediate need for an overflow option has been met by St. James. That’s good news for the homeless among us and for Keene in meeting its moral obligation to provide for them. But it shouldn’t escape notice that, in stepping up to meet the near-term absence of overflow space, a congregation whose beliefs and traditions include a story of a homeless family finding overflow sheltering during this season of the year has also given us a reminder that there remain important needs to be met.