Gimme Shelter — Going Green for the Homeless

Filed in Featured, Lifestyle by on February 27, 2012 0 Comments
helping homeless in boston

Helping the Homeless and the Environment

I’ve always been an advocate of green building, but a month ago I’d have scoffed at the notion of spending big money to retrofit or build a new homeless shelter to the same standards one might use in their own house or office building. Then came my epiphany, and the realization that Boston is already at the forefront of this collaboration of altruism and environmentalism.

Visiting family in Charleston, S.C. over the holidays, a cousin convinced me to join her in volunteering at local food shelter Crisis Ministries ( for an afternoon. As I expected, the building was dreary, with narrow halls navigating a former warehouse and a harshly lit dining room. Still, the experience was rewarding and the recipients very grateful as I dished out healthy dollops of mashed potatoes and green beans from my position in the serving line.

Chatting with a fellow volunteer, I mentioned how soup kitchens always seem like such sad places, not because of the people there but due to the prison-like buildings themselves. The volunteer’s eyes lit up as she began to explain how all of that is changing. Just down the street, she excitedly told me, Crisis Ministries recently broke ground on a $6 million, LEED-certified building. The project is based on the belief that when the homeless are given a reason to take pride in their surroundings, they’ll be inspired to take steps toward self-sustenance and independence.

Back in Massachusetts for work the following week, I wondered if there were any similar shelters here. I was pleased to discover that Boston is well ahead of the curve. Perhaps the most notable example is Project Hope ( in Roxbury. Founded in 1981, the organization is far more than a shelter, working integrally with impoverished women and children to help them secure permanent work, health care, and housing. In 2006, Project Hope opened their LEED certified headquarters on Dudley Street, the first green building in Roxbury and possibly the first organization serving the homeless in the nation to take that step.

The handsome building (pictures: is now a source of pride for the community. It’s not everyday that an organization helping the homeless boasts a conference room nice enough that it’s available for rental by outside groups.

Another longtime Boston group serving the underprivileged, Rosie’s Place, (, took a similar step in 2008, when they renovated a house that provides a permanent home for ten women with severe medical issues who would otherwise have nowhere to go. Rosie’s Place began humbly in a converted supermarket in 1974, slowly growing into an unparalleled resource for women in need, including those living with HIV.

At their three-story Mount Vernon home in Dorchester, old appliances were swapped out for Energy Star certified models and light bulbs were switched to CFLs, immediately reducing power bills by 20 percent. New weather-stripping sealed up leaky doors and windows, and walls were painted with low VOC paint. The changes seem basic — they’re the types of adaptations many of us have made in our own homes, with favorable results on our electric bills.

In a house serving the homeless, making green changes doesn’t always come as easily. New appliances and light bulbs are an upfront cost, but forward thinking shelters like Rosie’s Place realize that they’ll save money in the long run.

A little further afield, down in Kingston, the Plymouth Area Coalition for the Homeless’ new community garden aims to provide fresh produce for the soup kitchen while empowering its residents to grow their own food. Think about the last food drive you participated in — most donations to homeless shelters come in the form of non-perishable canned goods. With an onsite garden, the Kingston’s shelters 700 clients are connected to the earth, given a purpose with their work in the garden, and nourished by the resulting fresh produce. When you’re trying to make a fresh start, one’s own health should be the first step.

With a little more research, I found that a host of cities are joining Boston in its efforts to green its homeless shelters. Boulder, Oakland, and Dallas have each built impressive green shelters in the last decade, and each boasts more success stories (including reduced crime rates in the surrounding neighborhoods) than in the bleaker buildings that preceded them. The coolest project I found, in Fresno, California, involves an entire “eco-village” of tiny free-standing homes for the needy, built from waterproofed cardboard, pallets, and straw bales. ( Already under construction, the community will undoubtedly provide people hope where it didn’t exist before.

Smart investors understand the value of making a commitment up front for a reward later on. Building brighter, greener shelters for the homeless makes good sense. Some may question the multi-million dollar price tags on projects like the new shelter in Charleston, but the end result will be empowered individuals who rejoin society as productive workers, rather than draining the welfare programs we all help fund.

Boston is at the forefront of this movement, and it’s worth your time to volunteer and see it for yourself.

Volunteering info:

Project Hope:

Rosie’s Place:

Plymouth Area Coalition:

In his role in the self storage industry, Tim Eyre helps customers care for their cherished belongings that must be put in storage. Tim regularly visits his facilities including a Waltham self storage center. Extra Space recently launched the Extra Space Storage Blog, for which Tim writes on a regular basis.


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