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CASPAR Homeless Shelter Aids Needy with MIT Help

By Noemi L. Giszpenc

His name couldn't be more perfect.

Win Poor, director of the Cambridge and Somerville Program for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Rehabilitation, seems to have been destined to serve society's less fortunate members.

Ten years at MIT prepares some people for engineering or scientific careers; they led Poor to volunteer in 1985 at the homeless shelter where he has worked ever since.

In that time, Poor has seen CASPAR expand from a pair of overburdened trailers to the large, clean, functional building it occupies today. MIT built the $1.9-million Albany Street building as part of a property deal with Cambridge in 1993, rescuing CASPAR from the trailers that had housed it since 1979.

But despite the new surroundings, CASPAR's guests have not changed. The shelter houses 72 homeless people, usually about 10 women and 62 men, who have drug and/or alcohol problems. It does not admit children, so it refers mothers or families to other shelters.

Food comes from regular donations by MIT and an effort coordinated by the Hunger Action Group as well as from occasional donations from other institutions, food drives, and whatever staples the shelter can afford from the Boston Food Bank.

CASPAR gets two-thirds of the money it needs to buy food and supplies and pay its staff from the Department of Public Health. The programs and grants fill in the rest of the shelter's operating budget are precarious at best - the shelter recently lost $1,500 from Project Bread, what had been a sum.

Working on a shoestring

Despite its small and shrinking budget, CASPAR carries on with its primary mission of saving lives. The shelter has found ways to stretch the donations and purchases so that an average meal now costs only 17 cents.

Although many people are tepid about volunteering in a shelter whose guests are more often than not under the influence, CASPAR's staff does find some help from workers referred by the courts to do community service and from some welfare recipients participating in workfare programs.

Nevertheless, with the help of these workers, CASPAR is able to stay open 24 hours a day with a staff no bigger than it was in the trailer days. This is due in great part to a building design that allows desk workers to keep an eye on many parts of the shelter at once.

Clear sight-lines between the front desk to the entrance, the common room, the kitchen, the closed courtyard, the male and female sober and intoxicated dormitory rooms, and the "quiet room" make for efficient oversight.

Several other architectural amenities - including a large laundry room, walk-in freezer and walk-in refrigerator, cubbies behind the desk to store personal belongings, and a second quiet lounge - help staffers serve their guests better.

Goal is to reduce harm'

Two examination rooms serve the shelter's optional but recommended counseling and detoxification program. Guests who take part in these programs can later be referred to halfway houses.

Of course, many people stop going to counseling after being in detox (or never go at all) and end up back in the shelter before long.

But Poor's philosophy holds strong. "These are not bad people," he said. "They are a population whose circumstances and problems are extremely difficult and complicated."

That is why Poor believes it is up to the staff to make sure that no one brings in any drugs or alcohol, that none is used in the building, and that disagreements do not flare up into fights. The staff's vigilance makes such blow-ups rare.

Efforts are made to reduce harm of all sorts. Guests are encouraged to use condoms and take advantage of the weekly needle-exchange program. Many of CASPAR's visitors are not only HIV-positive but have full-blown AIDS.

CASPAR puts its guests in touch with health facilities, but on another level, it also helps by letting them get showers and clean clothes and shave - in short, to begin at least to look like they belong to the mainstream culture from which they have dropped out. Some guests even use the shelter as a temporary home, where they live as they find jobs, go to work, and finally come back to the fabric of society.

For a number of years, MIT's Hunger Action Group has helped Poor and CASPAR with their difficult work by running Food Salvage, taking food which would otherwise be thrown out at the end of the day from MIT's cafeterias to the shelter - turning what makes students groan or screw up their faces during the day into special treats at night. HAG also participates in Saturday's Bread, runs food drives, and sends volunteers to the Food Bank.